Posted Apr 16 2010 9:57AM
Good morning, Ron Artest. This is your mid-April wake-up call.
The playoffs are here, though Ron-Ron isn't. In the literal sense, yes -- he played and started 77 games and was second on the Lakers in total minutes, behind only Kobe Bryant. But the expected energy rush has mostly been missing. The constriction on defense has mostly been lacking.
And now here comes Kevin Durant.
It's a first round of Bryant and the Lakers against Durant and the Thunder starting Sunday at Staples Center, and of Artest against history. Think the rumble in Auburn Hills, Mich., cemented his legacy? Try being known as the difference between a back-to-back and a flat-on-their-back.
That means Lakers management is also very much on the hook. They're the ones that took a screwdriver to a proven fit last summer and essentially swapped 24-year-old Trevor Ariza for the 30-year-old Artest even after Ariza played a key role in the 2009 title. Ariza was allowed to leave as a free agent and sign with Houston, and Ariza took his place in Houston in a perfect bit of symmetry and easy comparison.
Welcome to the outcome. Artest had a letdown of a regular season, but the playoffs and the playoffs. Now here comes Durant -- scoring champion, 6-feet-9 of perimeter game, post game, drawing fouls, putting the ball on the floor -- as the first assignment in an immediate showdown that will go a long way to settling the Ariza-Artest debate.
Handle Durantula as well as can be expected, and Artest is money well spent and a hero. Get picked apart, and Staples Center will yearn for Ariza.
"I heard a little bit of that early on," Artest said of the comparisons. "But what I did earlier on my career, the type of defender I was, I've never seen a defender like it."
"Some people say I'm a pretty good defender," he said. "I don't know the comparison ... When I was 24 years old, I was locking down. Trevor never did what I did, you know? When I was 24, guys weren't scoring. You can't compare me, you know. You gotta compare me to somebody else."
"I don't know. You can't compare me to Trevor. At that age, you can't compare me. When he gets to my age, we'll see with his career what he's doing. But you can't compare us right now. We're different players. When I was that age, my D was like never seen before, you know what I mean?
"Honestly, after I leave, I go do my music. I don't even watch basketball games. I just work out and my game is just however it is. I don't even watch basketball like that. I don't know what anybody's doing. I know my defense is so superior that I don't have to watch nobody. I don't have to watch what you do. You gotta watch what I do."
It won't be all on Artest, of course. The Lakers will send waves at Durant. But a contract for $39 million over five seasons is for just this kind of moment. The reputation -- from being first- or second-team All-Defense four times in the previous seven seasons -- the sense that he hasn't met expectations, the initial 5 ½ months in Los Angeles all mean that how Durant is handled actually is on Artest.
The disappearing act by Artest this season has ben partly by design. Artest is trying to fit in rather than become another star in the Lakers' galaxy that was all soap opera and reality TV before he showed. He likes the role of being a complement, likening it to his Pacers days with scorers Reggie Miller and Jermaine O'Neal, and is unfazed by his career-low 11 points a game.
But this has gone too far. Blending became fading by the end of the regular season, with zero Artest impact on offense and nothing close to the usual spark on defense. One opposing coach, asked what difference he noticed in the 2010 version of Artest, said, "It's not what you notice. It's more that you don't notice." Artest was turning invisible.
The Lakers need him to be typical again. They need it now, with a title at risk and the threat of having knowingly broken up a championship team on the line.
And now here comes Kevin Durant.
Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here.
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