LOS ANGELES -- He was the only one on the floor who played without the weight of the world -- or at least the city -- on his shoulders. He was the only one who bought into the cliché that it was simply another game, because maybe in Ron Artest's mind it was.
Maybe he thought there would be a Game 8. Maybe he forgot he was playing in the NBA Finals. Maybe he thought it was a regular-season game in November. With Artest you just never know. Whatever it was, the Lakers' mercurial forward was the only player on the court for much of the Lakers' 83-79 win against the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the NBA Finals who wasn't wound tighter than a spring coil.
He allowed the Lakers to remain within reach of a game they trailed by 13 points in the third quarter. In the process, he cemented his place in Lakers history.
Artest was all over the court, finishing with 20 points, five rebounds and five steals, and making key play after key play while changing the momentum of a game that was seemingly slipping away from the Lakers from the opening tip.
History will remember Kobe Bryant as the Finals MVP, but there is no way he celebrates the honor and a fifth championship without the help of Artest, who scored 12 points in the first half (all in the second quarter) while the triumvirate of Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum went 7-for-31 for 16 points and the team shot a collective 25.5 percent from the field.
It was Artest who kept the team within striking distance with his defense on Paul Pierce, who finished with 18 points, and his hustle on both ends of the floor. He was responsible for two of the game's signature moments and ultimately was the reason why the Lakers won their 16th championship.
He converted a three-point play when he hit a six-footer while getting fouled by Pierce in the paint to tie the score at 61-61 with 7:28 left after the Celtics had led for much of the game. He then essentially put the game away when he made a 3-pointer to give the Lakers a 79-73 lead with less than a minute to play.
This was the moment Artest had dreamed about when he signed with the Lakers in the offseason. After his childhood friend Lamar Odom -- who told Artest he would win a championship if he signed with the Lakers -- tossed the ball into the air as the clock expired, Artest ran around the court as mindlessly as he did while dribbling the ball during the Lakers' loss in Game 2 of the Finals.
As much as the players on the Lakers admire Bryant, look up to Derek Fisher and confide in Odom, there isn't a player on the team more liked than Artest. He's essentially the lost puppy who simply wants to please everyone but more often than not trips over himself in the process. The reason everyone on the team ran to the other end of the court when Artest hit the winning layup in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals against the Phoenix Suns wasn't only because it was a big shot but because it was Artest who made it.
"There's no one on the team we root more for and are as happy for than Ron," Lakers forward Luke Walton said. "He's worked so hard and sacrificed so much and we all want to see him do well."
Artest did more than that when the Lakers needed him most. Amazingly, the Lakers' most erratic and unpredictable player this season was their calming force and most dependable weapon in their biggest game.
As Artest sat in front of his locker after the game, surrounded by his family, he began showing them around like a school kid showing his parents his classroom. "This is where I do my interviews after games," he said as he held a bottle of champagne. When he was asked about the toughness he brought to the Lakers, he looked up at his father standing above him and pointed to him.
"When you talk about tough Ron, that's my dad," he said. "My dad threw me on the floor, roughed me up real bad and used to make me real mad. He prepared me for this moment right here. That's why when you see me I can't control it. That's my dad. I played hard because my dad did. Don't blame it on the alcohol, blame it on my dad."
As Artest spoke, his brother Daniel, gave Artest the Larry O'Brien Trophy, which he cradled in his arm like a baby before looking at his 7-year-old daughter, Diamond.
"You want to kiss the ball," he asked her as she laughed and put her right hand over her face.
Before Artest could answer another question, he screamed he was losing his voice, prompting Diamond to whisper to him, "If you talk low, it comes back." Artest smiled and nodded his head, "OK, I will."
Artest's carefree demeanor in the locker room mirrored his attitude on the court for much of the game, which he credited to a sports psychologist he has been seeing. In fact, after the game when he was being interviewed on the court he made it a point to thank his psychologist and mention the release of his new single, which he recorded last year.
"I was nervous as a mama, but I have to thank my doctor," he said. "She came and saw me last night, and she'd come follow me on the road because there's so much going on on the road and I know myself. I know in these situations I don't think the right way and I need help to think the right way and focus and stay relaxed. All I did was relax at the moment I took the 3-pointer. I settled in and trusted in myself."
Artest was in rare form when describing the 3-pointer, which came off a pass from Bryant. "He never passes me the ball and he passed me the ball," Artest said. "Phil didn't want me to shoot the 3. He's the Zen Master, so he can speak to you and he doesn't need a microphone. You can hear him in your head, 'Ron, don't shoot.' Whatever. Pow, 3. I love the Zen though."
Later pressed about the shot, Artest said God told him to shoot it when he wasn't so sure. "A voice came down and told me to shoot the ball," he said. " 'Shoot the ball,' he said. God told me to shoot the ball and I shot the ball."
If it all sounds a little crazy, it's because you'd expect nothing less from Artest, who clutched the trophy in his arms after the game and admitted he didn't fully realize he was playing for the championship until he was handed a championship cap after the game.
"I really couldn't feel where I was at," Artest said. "I couldn't feel the Finals. I was more in the game and what my coach wanted me to do. When we won, I didn't even know we won. I honestly didn't know we won. I actually cried before the game. How stupid is that? How dumb is that? How do you cry before the game and then you don't cry after you win? Daddy, you raised a dumb child."
He then smiled at his parents, standing above him and laughing, then kissed the trophy again.
"Hey, Daddy. Hey, Mommy. Look at me now!" he screamed. "Look at me now!"
Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.