By Vincent Thomas, for NBA.com
Posted May 7 2009 7:35PM
LOS ANGELES -- People think this Lakers-Rockets series is about Ron Artest vs. Kobe Bryant, but it isn't. Ron and Kobe will go head-to-head only so much. After the Rockets' Game 1 win, Ron said that Kobe is the only dude that can "stop" Kobe. And, of course, Kobe, in his dry postgame press conference, played down any matchup when he dismissed the thought that Houston's defense is any more difficult to navigate than anyone else's.
The truly compelling story of this series is New Ron vs. Old Ron. Artest, in case you haven't noticed, has recast himself as a thoughtful, charming, gregarious oddball. Not more than a couple years ago, he was a knucklehead thug. Now that's what I call public opinion rehabilitation.
His new mohawk, designating Brandon Roy as the best two-guard in the league, tongue-in-cheek comments about "going into the stands" -- Ron Artest is endearing now. The truth is, Ron was never a thug. Yeah, he was a bully on the court and, yeah, he went crazy for a few minutes in Detroit a few years ago. But the dude was never a thug. He always had a big heart and a unique MO. Mistakes will miscast you, though.
Lost in all that was another secret: Ron Artest is one of the best basketball players on the planet. He is way smarter than you think, one of the most cerebral players bouncing a ball today. His coach, Rick Adelman, said that his job is easier because Ron is so intelligent. Yao Ming said he was gonna leave Staples and scream, at the top of his lungs, about how smart Ron is -- just in case it's not common knowledge. Very few players analyze the game -- especially player matchups -- the way Ron does. That's why he's so effective at shutting down the unshutdownable stars in this league.
When you combine prowess with personality, you can see why he's such a dramatic and entertaining figure. Freed from the burden of public contempt, people are starting to slowly come to terms with the fact that Ron is a one-of-a-kind gem.
Post-game press conferences are boring. Unless the wry Gregg Popovich is at the podium, it's basically a procession of athletes and coaches spewing clichés. Very few cats let us on to anything. This Lakers-Rockets series happens to have two of the few: Lamar Odom and Ron-Ron. Odom is thoughtful. He's quiet, reserved, calculated and introspective. Artest is loose, cavalier and off-the-cuff. His candor should be cherished. Even if it is a little unsettling.
Sometimes, a dude can be so honest it's uncomfortable, like Seinfeld's Kramer. Not Michael Richards screaming the N-word at the Laugh Factory -- Cosmo Kramer telling George's girlfriend she needs a nose job. That's Ron-Ron. He's a 6-foot-8 Afro-American Kramer, telling Craig Sager that he thinks Charles Barkley was overrated. And he's self-aware, too. Only Artest would joke about "going into the stands" when a reporter asked him about his foray into the Toyota Center crowd, chasing a loose ball during the Rockets' Game 6 clincher against the Blazers. Even Yao had to laugh at that. The press corps cracked up, too. It's fun when Ron is viewed as mostly harmless, but wholly cool and likable.
He's also showing his leadership chops. It was Ron, not Yao or darling Shane Battier, that said the Rockets would not being happy simply getting past the first round. Artest brings a hubris to the table that you have to love. He fears no man, and his team senses that and feeds off that machismo. He backs the swagger up on the court, too.
He hit more than a few big shots in Game 1 and was a cool hand whenever L.A. made a run. After Trevor Ariza threw down a fastbreak dunk to give L.A. a 22-21 lead, Ron motioned for Kyle Lowry to chill. So Lowry slowed down, gave the ball to Ron, who dribbled past half-court, called a play, muscled Ariza down to the block and, when the double-team came, dropped a bounce pass to Carl Landry right at the bucket for a score. That's what we call "facilitating." There are maybe only 10 "facilitators" in the whole league -- 12 tops. To facilitate takes skill, smarts, maturity and the respect of your teammates. If your teammates don't respect you, then they'll scoff when you try to direct traffic. Ron's teammates fall in line.
Don't under-estimate this cat just because he speaks with no filter and wears tight shorts from the John Stockton/Isiah Thomas wheelhouse (seriously, those things may as well be boy-shorts). When he said that Brandon Roy was the best two-guard he's defended, some mistook that for foolish idiocy. Really? You think Ron is dumb. He's the craziest fox you know.
We've seen some great coming out parties in these Playoffs. Rondo, Rose, Roy. Names are being made. This might be Ron's 10th season in the league, but he's making a name for himself, too -- a new name. In this series, that's the real story.
Vincent Thomas writes "The Commish" column for SLAM Magazine and is a contributing commentator for ESPN. His "From The Floor" column appears weekly on NBA.com. Vince invites you to email him at email@example.com or follow him on twitter at twitter.com/VinceCAThomas.
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