By John Clayton
Indianapolis, November 10, 2003
Ron Artest’s broken tooth was repaired by a dentist Monday morning, but his upper lip is still badly swollen – proof that as much as losing hurts, victory can be painful, as well.
The Pacers have reeled off five straight wins in no small part due to the efforts of Artest, whose tenacious defense, increasingly dangerous offensive game and improved focus have given the team a versatile threat on both ends of the court. It also landed Artest the Eastern Conference Player of the Week award.
There was a time, not so long ago, when the busted lip and broken tooth caused by a Derrick Coleman elbow Sunday against Philadelphia would have set off a volatile reaction from Artest, but not this time. Instead, Artest simply regrouped, his mouth bloodied, and calmly sank a pair of free throws to help clinch Indiana’s 85-74 victory at Philadelphia’s Wachovia Center.
“I want to have a chance to see what my potential is,” said Artest. “I want to see how far the team can go when I’m level-headed and how far I can go when I’m level-headed.
“When my career is over, I can go back and play in the streets and get dirty in the street. Right now, everybody’s trying to win a championship. . . . We want to go as far as we can go and, hopefully, that’s to the Promised Land.”
Artest missed 12 games last season due to a variety of suspensions for his on-court behavior, including committing several flagrant fouls like the one he was the victim of against the 76ers. It proved to be an unwelcome distraction for a team attempting to make noise in the playoffs.
While Artest’s on-court demeanor may have taken a turn for the better, his reputation as a tough guy was only reinforced by his performance against Philadelphia.
“He had his tooth knocked in half. The root was sticking right out. There was blood and everything else and the guy steps up and hits two free throws and knocks in a 3, and he doesn’t say boo,” said Pacers coach Rick Carlisle. “Obviously, the guy has great toughness. He’s exercised great restraint and great composure through our seven games.”
In addition to taking a tough, flagrant foul in stride, this kinder, gentler Artest also moved into the role of peacemaker when teammate Anthony Johnson was elbowed by Atlanta’s Jason Terry on Nov. 1. Artest twice pulled Johnson away from a potential fracas, helping the cool heads of Indiana hold off the Hawks in overtime.
“It hasn’t been hard because the team has been there right behind me,” Artest said. “If you’re in it by yourself, most likely you’ve got to handle a lot of things by yourself. When you’ve got the team behind you and more veterans like Anthony and Kenny (Anderson) come along and when you’ve got this team behind you, it’s easy to deal with situations.”
Artest’s toughness has always been rivaled only by his confidence. He has proclaimed himself unstoppable since entering the NBA after two seasons at St. John’s.
Now, the rest of the league is beginning to find out how tough it is to stop Artest, whose 30-point, 10-rebound performance at Philadelphia was just 2 points shy of his career high (at Golden State, March 4, 2003).
In earning Player of the Week honors, Artest averaged 22.5 points, 6 rebounds and 3.3 assists in four games – all Pacers victories.
“I think (the award) is well-deserved,” said Carlisle. “He’s playing really well at both ends of the court, playing with great composure and his game has taken a quantum leap in recent weeks and I expect him to continue to play well.”
With All-Star forward Jermaine O’Neal drawing double teams regularly, it is imperative that the Pacers have another consistent scoring option alongside him. So far, Artest has fit that job description.
“He’s a big part of what we do,” said O’Neal of Artest. “Obviously, he’s a really good 3-point shooter. . . . I think the biggest change in his total game has been patience. Patience has been great for it. He’s taking his time, not really rushing shots and getting the shots that he wants.”
And if those shots continue to fall, Artest, whose defensive prowess has never been doubted, will be the offensive force the Pacers need in their starting lineup alongside O’Neal and Reggie Miller.
“I think most of the guys in the league are respecting my offensive game,” said Artest, noting that his work in practice has gone a long way in convincing his coaches and teammates as well. “But it all boils down to the team. It’s not just me, me, me. I feel like I’m unstoppable, but this is about the team.”