Is Ron Artest Headed for Bill Buckner Status?
LOS ANGELES -- "Ask Buckner."
Lamar Odom wasn't talking about Ron Artest when he called on the name Bostonians still love to hate. He was discussing the Lakers' disappearing defense in Boston's Game 5 win of the NBA Finals, describing how the infamous fielding blunder of Boston Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner in the 1986 World Series reminds us that mistakes will always be a part of sports.
But no matter the context, his words spoken at his TD Garden locker on Sunday night still dragged a living ghost into the room of a team that is haunted enough at the moment. And even worse, he did it while standing some 10 feet away from the player who is in danger of gaining similar infamy.
Should the defending champions indeed fall short in their attempt to repeat, be it Tuesday night in Game 6 or a Game 7 on Thursday, no player will feel the brunt of Laker Nation scorn as much as Artest.
Nine months after saying after his free agent signing that anything short of a championship would be his fault, that time and those circumstances have come together in a way that leaves no room for a gray-area legacy. Win, and Artest was the right move, his defense and toughness the missing element that wasn't there when the Celtics downed the Lakers in the Finals two years before. Lose, and even the most loyal of his Twitter faithful might click "unfollow" when the purple and gold mourning begins.
It's not fair, if you really analyze it. There is no way of knowing whether the Lakers would have reached this point with the departed Trevor Ariza, the Houston small forward whose negotiations with the Lakers went nowhere before he signed with the Rockets and Artest took his place.
Maybe Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant would have erupted in the first round instead of staying mostly dormant, the Thunder pulling off the first round upset instead of a six-game Lakers series win that came largely because Artest hounded the rising star into 35 percent shooting overall and 28.6 percent from beyond the arc. Perhaps Phoenix's Jason Richardson would have helped end the Lakers' run, maintaining his sharpshooting ways in the playoffs as opposed to cooling off as he did when he faced Artest. (Richardson averaged 16.1 points per game against the Lakers after scoring at a 21.9 points per game clip in the previous 10 postseason games.)
But as no one knows better than Buckner, fair has no place here. And after all, it was Artest himself who dictated these terms.
He interrupted Kobe Bryant's shower after the Lakers' 2008 Finals loss in Boston to campaign for his addition to the team. He challenged the Laker Nation to get their blaming fingers ready if this team didn't reach its ultimate goal.
"Everybody in L.A. expects a second ring. And if we don't then yeah, they should point it right at me, throwing tomatoes and everything," he said in September.
He defended his endless offensive struggles by reminding us that this team only needed him to be a defensive specialist, that his worth would be gauged almost entirely on that end. Artest invited this kind of scrutiny. But then the unexpected happened.
His calling card stopped working at the worst possible time.
Above all else, it was Paul Pierce's 27 points and 12 of 21 shooting in Game 5 that has put Artest and his place in Laker lore in jeopardy. The Celtics small forward had been hindered by Artest through three games, averaging just 17 points while his 41.6 percent shooting (20 of 48) was well below his regular season mark (47.2).
Pierce was a non-factor in Game 1, scoring just 11 of his 24 points through three quarters when the Lakers' rout was on. Pierce had just 10 points on 2 of 11 shooting in Boston's Game 2 win, then followed with relatively harmless outings of 15 and 19 points, respectively, in the ensuing games.
But in Game 5, Artest let Pierce revert to his 2008 Finals MVP form to such a degree that Kobe Bryant was seen asking Lakers coach Phil Jackson to let him take the defensive assignment over from Artest. Dribble-drives, pull-ups, stepback mid-range looks and threes. Pierce was sensational and Artest was back in the crosshairs.
His place has been made even more precarious because of his inconsistent -- if not almost nonexistent -- offense. Artest had 15 points in Game 1, but has proceeded to score a combined 24 points on 8 of 33 shooting since then (24.2 percent). It's no small problem for the Lakers, who are dealing with double and triple teams on Bryant and so badly need his supporting cast to make Boston pay for that gamble.
Making matters worse, Artest's blunder in the final minute of Game 5 may well become his version of Buckner's grounder-between-the-legs moment. After 6-foot-1 Derek Fisher somehow won a jump ball against 6-11 Kevin Garnett, Bryant corralled the ball and lobbed it ahead to a sprinting Artest. He was caught and fouled by Pierce on the play that the more-athletic Ariza might have finished with an emphatic slam, then proceeded to miss both free throws that could have cut the Celtics' lead to three with 43 seconds remaining.
Even those of us sitting up near the Garden rafters could see Artest's goat horns starting to grow.
"You know, Ron had an opportunity, an unusual situation - Fish elevated, beat Garnett to the ball on the tip, which is kind of unusual, and they weren't ready for the run-out," Jackson said afterward. "But we couldn't make the play on that."
Artest can still escape these ominous shadows. He can put Pierce on lockdown again Tuesday, maybe hit a few open threes and create some distance between himself and his Game 5 struggles by helping force a Game 7. Perhaps he'll be the unexpected hero again, hitting a big shot late like he did in Game 5 against the Suns when his putback at the buzzer bailed out Bryant after his airballed game-winning attempt.
If not, he might be the one asking Buckner how to handle the wrath of an entire city.
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