By John Clayton
Indianapolis, February 21, 2004
Ron Artest was wearing a bathrobe over his practice gear and bulky protective cast on his left hand as he lofted right-handed shots over and over again toward a basket at practice early Saturday afternoon. Both the robe and the cast were reminders that Artest could do precious little at the moment to help himself get better or help the Pacers toward the NBA Playoffs.
The robe reminded Artest to take it easy. The cast was a constant reminder that he'd better.
"I wore (the robe) so I wouldn't do too much - running sprints, stuff like that," Artest smiled as he left Emmis Court, the team's practice court at Conseco Fieldhouse.
Artest underwent surgery Thursday in New York to repair a torn ligament in his left thumb, the exact same surgery he had while playing at St. John’s. Though the Pacers have announced no timetable for Artest’s return to the lineup, the All-Star forward said he was out for four weeks following the earlier surgery he had to repair the thumb.
“I have to listen to my doctor and be ready,” Artest said. “I think when I get back, I’ll be fine.”
Artest surprised teammates by showing up in Washington Friday night to watch the Pacers’ defeat the Wizards, 96-87 with Al Harrington taking his spot as the starting small forward. Artest re-injured the thumb, which had been bothering him for about a month, Tuesday night against New Orleans. He said he could have opted for surgery earlier, but chose to see the team through the All-Star break, hoping that he wouldn’t injure the thumb further. After hurting it again against the Hornets by getting it caught on an opponents’ jersey, he said it made the decision for surgery easier.
“I’d rather take care of it now,” Artest said. “If it happens again in the playoffs, then I have to fight through it, but I’ve got time (to heal). I think I played this one smart. It’s a good decision. ... A lot of people wanted me to not get the surgery, but that would’ve been a dumb decision, knowing that I can be back for the playoffs.”
Though Harrington struggled against the Wizards with six points and five turnovers, Jonathan Bender took advantage of increased playing time with 11 points on 4 of 6 shooting. Led by Bender, the Pacers’ bench outscored Washington’s, 25-11.
“Our team is just so talented, if a guy like me misses a game or something, we don’t miss a beat with Al and Jonathan Bender,” Artest said.
The Pacers aren’t downplaying the loss of Artest, whose tough defense coupled with an 18.0-point scoring average could be a more severe blow to a team with less depth, but they see last night’s victory as a sign that they can weather his absence.
“We responded the same way we’ve responded all year – without me in the lineup, without Al in the lineup or without (Ron) in the lineup,” said Jermaine O’Neal. “That’s what makes this team so tough to beat. We have guys who can step in and do the things that the guy who’s out normally does. I don’t think anybody in the locker room was surprised.”
For now, the Pacers are using some of their practice time to sort out the Xs and Os without Artest.
“Our bench now, we’re having to have to redefine how we’re playing a little bit,” said Coach Rick Carlisle. “I spent some time working with these guys on some things and we have some challenges, but I like where we’re at.”
Artest also has a challenge in front of him. He has to stay in shape and will begin to rehab the injured thumb when doctors say it’s ready. He said it’s important for him to be with the team, which is why he made the trip to Washington and why he was shooting hoops in a bathrobe Saturday afternoon.
“I’m just injured. I’m still here,” he said. “I’ve just got to rehab and make sure I can get back and be ready.”