Artest Spoils Durant's Playoff Debut, Lakers Take Series Lead
The Oklahoma City star had heard one too many questions about Ron Artest and his defense after the Lakers' 87-79 Game 1 win on Sunday afternoon. And as he stood in the Staples Center tunnel pondering his 7-of-24 shooting performance and the part Artest played in it, the league's most polite prodigy turned a tad uncouth.
"I mean, not to take anything from (Artest), but if you miss shots people are going to say that's the defender's fault," a disappointed Durant told FanHouse. "Sometimes it's not like that. He does a great job, but it easily could've been a different game as far as me making those shots. ... If I missed a layup, does that mean he played great defense on that? If I missed a wide-open three, does that mean he played great defense on that, too?"
Predictably, Durant returned to his good-natured ways and finished his impromptu analysis on a complimentary note.
"But don't (get me wrong), Ron's a great defender," he said.
Artest was certainly that in the series opener, defending Durant in the sort of way that will spell sweep for the Lakers should it happen every time out.
That meant temporary justification for Artest, who was added to the Lakers last summer precisely for these types of moments. For all his varied quirks and challenges -- the gold-ish hair he's currently sporting, the ongoing struggles with the triangle offense, the recent admission that the player he replaced, Houston's Trevor Ariza, is the "better player" among the two -- Artest remains one of the league's few defensive specialists.
And as Kobe Bryant saw firsthand when Artest hounded him in the Lakers' seven-game Western Conference semifinals win over Houston in 2009, his tireless style comes in handy in the postseason.
"I don't know," Bryant would joke afterward. "I had a pretty easy time with Ron in the playoffs. ... No, (Artest) played with a lot of energy, he played intelligently in terms of knowing where Durant was coming from, how to try to get in his way. He did a really, really solid job on him. He looked quick, too. He looked like the Ron of old."
Artest lost 15 pounds in recent months for that very purpose, sticking to a diet that teammate Adam Morrison jokes is "nothing but celery" while working his weight down to 252 pounds. The physical changes have coincided with the emotional kind, as the 30-year-old Artest -- who's well aware that his oft-controversial story could have a redemption-filled chapter added in these coming months -- said he's trying to take the older-and-wiser approach to this postseason.
"Earlier in my career, I would've been like, 'Yeah, (his defense on Durant) was great,'" Artest told FanHouse. "Now it's like even if he gets 40 (points) and we win, that's cool. I just want to go out there and win."
Asked if stopping Durant every time out meant the Lakers would win the series, Artest didn't agree.
"You've still got to stop the team," he said. "I think having four All-Stars on one team (the Lakers) is nice, and that team (the Thunder) probably has two All-Stars over there. That does make a little difference."
As did the officiating.
The $35,000 spent last week by Lakers coach Phil Jackson on his league fine looked to be a worthy investment, as the Durant superstar treatment he feared was nonexistent. The league's leading free-throw shooter had no trips to the line in the first quarter and just two of his 11 in the first half, when only a valiant recovery effort late from the impressive Russell Westbrook kept the Thunder from being done at the break.
Durant's first trip to the charity stripe didn't come until midway through the second quarter, the Lakers already up 17 and the defensive-minded game well on its way to an Eastern Conference feel. Having driven left and finally slithered around Artest, Durant wound up on his back after being slammed to the floor by Andrew Bynum. The message, at the time, seemed clear: Durant would only be getting the obvious calls.
Yet despite Durant's struggles and the opening loss, there was reason for hope in the Thunder camp. They held the battered Bryant in check offensively (21 points on 6-of-19 shooting) and the Lakers to 41 percent shooting, with Durant receiving his share of defensive credit from his bosses after limiting Artest to 3-of-11 shooting from the field (1-of-8 from three-point range).
"I liked the fact that (Durant) did other things," Thunder coach Scott Brooks told FanHouse. "He still defended. A lot of players who can score like he scores, who have a tough shooting night, will just give into the game and say, 'You know, it's not my game.' Kevin was defending his heart out every possession. That's why we had a chance to keep the game close. That's a great sign. Not a lot of players, let alone young players, will do that."
Brooks, who coached Artest as a Sacramento assistant during the 2006-07 season, said he's confident Durant can return to form in Game 2.
"Ron has an impact," Brooks continued. "But we have to do a better job of figuring out how (Durant) can get loose throughout the game. Ron does a great job. That's how he gets paid. He defends the best."
Oklahoma City trailed 64-56 entering the fourth quarter after Durant seemed to finally find his rhythm. His pullup midrange shot with 1:14 left in the third made it 60-53, and the decisive Durant looked like "he was about to try to take it over," as Artest would later say. The timing was right, as the lips of officials Monty McCutchen, Jason Phillips and Tom Washington had softened every so slightly on the whistles on which Durant so often depends.
But Durant didn't enter the fourth quarter until there was nine minutes remaining, the Lakers pushing their lead to 11 in a temporary battle of the reserves. As he sat at the scorer's table before entering, he took the white towel atop his head and placed it on the floor. What he didn't do was wave it. One game in, Durant insists there's no need for a white flag.
"I got the shots I wanted to get; I just didn't make them," he said. "I feel confident that next game I'm going to make those shots. ... We still had an opportunity to win even though I didn't shoot the ball well. What happens if I shoot the ball well and we continue to play defense?"