Sacramento 112, New York 100

SACRAMENTO, Calif., Jan. 2 (AP) -- Ron Artest always seems to have a surprise in store for the Sacramento Kings. His mysterious knee problems last month were unexpected, and his inconsistent play has turned every night into an adventure.

When Artest produced the highest-scoring game of his career just three days after being shut out, the Kings finally got a pleasant surprise from their center of attention.

Artest scored a career-high 39 points with exceptional outside shooting, and Sacramento never trailed in a 112-100 victory over the New York Knicks on Tuesday night.

Artest made 15 of his first 19 shots against his hometown team, hitting three 3-pointers and scoring 13 points in the fourth quarter to help Sacramento hang on for its fourth victory in five games. Mike Bibby added 19 points and nine assists for the Kings, who have improved dramatically since losing nine times in an 11-game stretch to begin December.

Artest, who also had five steals, scored the Kings' first nine points of the final quarter as Sacramento held off a strong rally by the Knicks, who lost for the fourth time in five games. Artest then surpassed his previous career high on a jumper with 6:55 to play, finishing with eight rebounds as well.

"Finally," said Artest, whose 38 percent shooting this season hasn't reflected his extra work in the gym. "You just have to stay with it, stay focused. A lot of people have been saying I couldn't shoot the ball. I had a bad year or a bad season [shooting], but I figured I would come around. I've been working hard. Things just haven't been going my way."

Artest went scoreless in the Kings' blowout win over Golden State on Saturday, and had scored just 15 points in three games since returning from a self-imposed two-game rest for sore knees that the team didn't know were hurting him. Artest also says his back is bothering him -- but everything felt strong against the Knicks. Jamal Crawford scored 28 points and Stephon Marbury had 17 points and eight assists for the Knicks, who are 0-3 on a five-game West Coast road trip. Eddy Curry scored 19 points and David Lee added 16 points and 15 rebounds, but New York committed 20 turnovers and couldn't slow down Artest in its sixth straight road loss.

"He was awesome. We didn't have an answer for him," Knicks coach Isiah Thomas said. "That's the type of player he is. He has the ability to win the game by himself. He knows when to score and how to score. He's got the complete package."

Kings center Brad Miller was ejected in the third quarter for arguing with referee Gary Zielinski, but Artest easily carried Sacramento -- and added another odd chapter to his eventful year.

"Artest's performance [was] just an unbelievable offensive display," Kings coach Eric Musselman said. "Ron is a smart player, and he figured out that he could beat those guys off the dribble, and then he just got in the zone."

Though Artest has been mentioned in trade rumors and criticized for his recent play, the eccentric Queensbridge native was back on his game against the Knicks. In fact, Musselman used his three players from New York -- Artest, the Bronx's Francisco Garcia and Coney Island rookie Quincy Douby -- together in the second quarter as Sacramento built a steady lead.

The Kings hung on without leading scorer Kevin Martin, who curiously didn't play in the final 17:56. Musselman stuck with an unusual rotation for the second straight game after giving just 12 minutes to Artest against the Warriors.

The Kings tried several different defensive strategies against Curry, who has faced near-constant double-teams since emerging as the Knicks' dominant low-post player. Curry managed just eight points in the second half, and Crawford lost steam after an impressive stretch on both ends of the court in the third quarter.

"I think my teammates did a good job looking for me, but Sacramento definitely made it difficult for me to get good looks," Curry said. "It was frustrating. I wish I could have done more."

Notes: Zielinski abruptly ejected Miller after the center thought he was fouled while missing a jumper, calling two technicals simultaneously. ... Knicks G Quentin Richardson missed his ninth straight game with back spasms, but New York hopes he will return for Wednesday's game at Portland. ... The Kings improved to 16-5 in the first game of a new year since moving to Sacramento.

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