Artest Making Statement with Defensive Presence

by Conrad Brunner

April 23, 2003

Indianapolis, April 23, 2003 - Ron Artest finished second in the NBA Defensive Player of the Year balloting announced Wednesday. Which is a shame for two reasons: second place means nothing to him, and the voting took place long before his playoff matchup with Boston's Paul Pierce.

Detroit's Ben Wallace won the award in a landslide, racking up 100 first-place votes and 531 total points from selected media representatives who cover the NBA on a regular basis. Artest was second with two first-place votes and 100 points.

Artest took the results in stride.

"There's no disappointment because I think I probably play the best individual defense at my position," he said. "I really take pride in my defense. You can't take anything away from guys like (Tim) Duncan, Shaq (O'Neal), Kobe (Bryant) is a good defender and Doug Christie is a good defender. There are a lot of good defenders out there but I still feel like I should've won the award."

Those who have paid attention to the Pacers-Celtics series would be hard pressed to come up with an argument. Other than the fourth quarter of Game 1, when Pierce took advantage of Artest's foul trouble and scored 21 of his 40 points in the final eight minutes to lead a Boston comeback victory, the Pacers forward has come as close as is possible to shutting down the Celtics' star.

Pierce has gone 13-of-42 from the field (31 percent); of his 54 points, 24 have come from the free-throw line.

Pacers coach Isiah Thomas said he was "very disappointed" Artest didn't win the award.

"Considering the people he has to guard every single night and what he's done to those people when he's guarded them, it's disappointing that he's not looked at as the best defender in this league," he said. "I believe he is. I would say most people who are guarded by him probably think he's the best defender in this league. He's a young guy. He's got another chance to win it maybe next year or the year after. But this year I truly thought he was the best defender in the league."

A defensive stopper who has been assigned to defend the most explosive scorers in the league on a regular basis, Artest rates Pierce as his toughest matchup.

"Paul is the most difficult to guard," he said. "I waste more energy on him. I'm not sure why. They talk about Tracy McGrady and Kobe Bryant, but this guy, he's up there with them if not a bit better."

After Pierce's Game 1 explosion, which was fueled by 21 free throws, the Pacers adjusted their team defense. Jermaine O'Neal was assigned to play, in effect, zone defense in the lane after Pierce caught the ball. A move designed to both squeeze Pierce's drives and allow Artest to play tighter on the perimeter, it worked perfectly. Pierce scored 14 points on 5-of-18 shooting and went to the free-throw line just five times as the Pacers bounced back to take Game 2, 89-77 in Conseco Fieldhouse on Monday night.

"He's one of the few guys we're playing straight-up," O'Neal said. "I zone up and come across once he makes his drive. We need Ron to be out there for us to be able to slow Paul Pierce down because he does such a good job of almost being a magnet to him. His arms are so long and his body's so strong, even when Paul makes his move and gets the bump he's still right there. You definitely have to give almost all the credit to Ron for slowing him down."

The series shifts to Boston for Games 3 and 4 Thursday at 5 p.m. and Sunday at 11 a.m.

Artest claims no special preparation for Pierce, using the same basic principals he has used against other top scorers. With a strong upper body, long arms, quick hands, surprising agility, Artest has a rare combination of skills that are enhanced by his desire to defend and fearlessness in pursuit of the ball.

"I've played him the same way I play all the right-handers - Kobe Bryant, (Jamal) Mashburn, Pierce, I play all those guys pretty much the same way," Artest said. "I stick to my defensive gameplan. I don't change, really. He's a great jump-shooter so I try to get on him so I'm always on him when he drives. If you leave him open, he'll make jump shots easy.

"I'm going to play him aggressive, regardless. Having good team defense helps, too. You can't slack up because you've got help behind you. You've got to take care of your own responsibilities out there."

Pierce said he has been bothered as much by a lingering cold and heavy legs brought about by long minutes - he has played 93 of a possible 96 - as Artest's individual defense.

"He's a good defender but I've got to give more credit to their team defense as a whole," he said. "I was able to get around him most of the time but it was the help that they sent at me that caused us problems. They play great team defense."

Coach Jim O'Brien, though, made no attempt to minimize Artest's effect.

"Artest," he said, "certainly has something to do with Paul shooting that number."

Artest acknowledged the possibility that his 12 games missed due to NBA and team disciplinary action hurt his chances in the balloting.

"When I look at it, yeah," he said. "There wasn't anything positive that came out of all the suspensions, so that probably had a lot to do with it. Coming in second, you can't complain, but you always want first."

Another factor is the difficult in quantifying the defensive impact of a single player. Wallace led the league in rebounding (15.4) and was second in blocked shots (3.15). The Pistons led the league in scoring defense (87.7) while the Pacers were 13th (93.3). Still, Artest's presence was reflected, statistically. In the 13 games he missed (including one due to illness), the Pacers allowed 96.6 points and 44.2 percent shooting. In the 65 games he played, opponents averaged 92.6 points on 42.4 percent shooting.

Ultimately, the team was 5-8 in games Artest missed, and 43-26 when he played.

Though he didn't win, he understood the meaning of finishing second; his reputation is growing, and with it comes more recognition than ever before.

"I think people are really understanding how I play," Artest said. "It's about stops. It's not about steals, it's not about blocked shots, it's not about defensive rebounding - that's what the big guys are for. I make sure I throw my little defensive rebound in there, too. But it's about stopping your man, and that's what I've been trying to do ever since I came in the league."