Artest Wants Less 'Cruising,' Criticism, More Defense and a Ring
And that, the Lakers small forward said on Wednesday, is precisely what he saw in his team's dominating Game 5 win over Oklahoma City at the Staples Center. But before the Lakers headed back to the Ford Center for Friday night's chance to close out their first round series, the 11-year veteran who so desperately wants his first ring wondered why that sort of performance has been the exception and not the rule.
His best guess: champions are always prone to becoming too complacent.
"I guess there were times when (Michael) Jordan and (his Chicago teams) won back-to-backs (titles) and three-peats, when they won 69 games one year, then won 59 and 55 (games), (and) I guess you've (won) so much and you're just waiting for the big picture (of the playoffs)," said Artest, who signed a five-year deal with the Lakers last summer to take part in this very pursuit. "But a guy like me, I don't have much (in the way of championships) so I want to play every day hard.'"
Which is something he wishes the Lakers had done more often this season.
"We were cruising through the whole Western Conference this year, and we stayed in cruise mode," Artest said. "And then at the end of the season, you saw that it hurt us, and then it led into the playoffs a little bit. We stayed in cruise mode. We thought we were something that we're not. We thought we were hot, just hot stuff, but we weren't. But we are if we play the right way."
While the Lakers took the 2-0 lead in the series at home, Oklahoma City had chances to win both games before evening it up with two wins at the Ford Center. The purple and gold switch was finally flipped in Game 5. The Lakers led 14-1 at the outset, having fixed their ailing transition defense, and overpowered the Thunder with forceful frontcourt play on both ends to spark the start.
The energy was frenetic, the chemistry obvious, the ball movement beautiful and the competitive spirit strong. Artest, who hasn't been this close to title contention since the Indiana days that went awry with his role in the 2004 Detroit brawl, wants that sort of performance every time out.
His candidness is a rarity in Laker Land, where the player who has long been one of the league's most unfiltered personalities has never been so subdued. He has left the lead spokesman role to Bryant and the other Laker incumbents all season long, well aware that he is here only for defense and not for diatribes.
But after the media masses veered toward Bryant during Wednesday's interview session, the frankness continued as Artest expressed frustration to FanHouse that his most important contribution of all – his defense – wasn't garnering more appreciation in the local media.
There has been talk of his struggles with the triangle offense and his shooting woes, as he is averaging 8.4 points per game on 35.3 percent shooting overall and 18.5 percent from three-point range in the playoffs. There is the ongoing debate about Artest and the player he replaced, Houston's Trevor Ariza, with the former Laker's outstanding offensive production used as the evidence of Artest's shortcomings.
Artest's lack of offensive efficiency is a legitimate gripe, although that improved with his 14-point outing Tuesday in which he hit 6 of 11 shots. But Artest's complaint is a valid one as well, as he has spent the better part of five games stifling the league's leading scorer in a way so few players could.
At a time when so many superstars match the higher stakes with increased production, Durant has had significant decreases in his scoring (30.1 points per game in the regular season to 24.8), field-goal percentage (47.6 percent to 38 percent), three-point percentage (36.5 percent to 26.7) and assists (2.8 to 2.2) while seeing his turnovers increase (3.3 to 4.2).
"I don't care," he told FanHouse when asked if he felt as if his defense was being overlooked. "All those guys who kill me (in the media) can kiss my a**. I'd tell them to their face, but I don't get a chance because I'm not worried about it.
"They talk about my offense, but it doesn't even matter because my defense is so unbelievable. Who cares about offense?"
Phil Jackson certainly does. The Lakers coach discussed Artest at length before Game 5, detailing how he told his small forward to stop shooting three-pointers from the corner and asking him to be more judicious about his shot selection.
Artest's first response came in the game, as his first three-pointer just so happened to come from the corner (a make) and he took four in all (converting two). His follow-up act a day later was even more priceless.
"If 10 corner threes are available, I'm going to take them," he had told reporters without hesitation.
Yet what sounded like defiance may have been his compartmentalized way of competing, a chosen approach that allows him to focus on defense and not dwell on an offense he may never fully understand anyways. Or perhaps Artest's mentality is better explained with his own analogy.
"It's like you've got a bad chick over here and your beautiful family over here, so why would you worry about her when you've got a beautiful family over here," Artest said in comparing his offense and his defense. "I don't care about offense. I can score, but I'm not going to say, 'Hey coach I can score.' I've got Black Mamba (Bryant), Pau (Gasol), (Andrew) Bynum, but I'm going to say, 'Hey get me more touches?' No, not at all. I just want to get stops."
And a ring, of course, although he clearly sees one as a means to the other.
"I could care less about making shots," he said. "If we get back on D, we win. We just have to play hard."
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