Quietly, Artest Playing Like an All-Star

by Jeff Tzucker

By John Clayton

Indianapolis, January 30, 2004

Months ago, as the season and fresh start for Ron Artest got underway, the Pacers forward said he wanted to see just how far he could go when all there was to talk about was basketball.

As it has evolved, he just might go all the way to Los Angeles for the NBA All-Star Game.

The All-Star starters, including the Pacers' Jermaine O'Neal, were announced Thursday night. The reserves, decided in a vote of the league's 29 coaches, will be announced Tuesday, Feb. 3.

“Every time I’d played a game in the NBA, I played with a lot of emotions and sometimes I’d get distracted,” Artest said. “This is the first year I’ve calmed down a little bit and focused on basketball. It’d be a nice individual accomplishment, but the best thing is that we have the most wins up until this point as a team and we’re just playing good team ball and staying focused on the game.”

Artest is second on the Pacers in scoring (17.4 ppg) behind O’Neal. He also is second in assists (3.9 apg) and leads the team in steals with 2.09 per game. He continues to perform as the team’s defensive stopper despite a sprained left thumb that has hampered him since the Pacers’ Jan. 17 victory over New Jersey. After leading the league in flagrant fouls last season, he currently has none.

“It’s great that in a league that’s supposed to be about basketball, it’s about basketball,” said Pacers Coach Rick Carlisle. “Ron’s game has spoken louder than anybody could ever verbalize. He’s played at an All-Star level for 47 games and I think he’s going to continue to do that.”

While Artest finished fourth among Eastern Conference forwards in the fan balloting behind Toronto’s Vince Carter, O’Neal and New Jersey’s Kenyon Martin, O’Neal has no doubt that Artest belongs with him on the team.

“It’d be devastating for him not to get voted in,” said O’Neal of Artest. “He’s our second-leading scorer with 17 a game. He’s (defending) the (opponent’s) best guy every single night and he does it in a big way. He definitely deserves to be there.”

Eastern Conference coaches will have the final say on the matter. The fact that the Pacers have the conference’s best record thus far could help Artest as much as the changes the has made to his on-court persona.

“The way I always look at All-Stars, I look at teams that are winning,” said Detroit Coach Larry Brown. “I always think we should identify with the teams that are winning and put a real emphasis on the guys who are leading those teams and honor those because that’s the important stat. On both ends of the court, (Artest) has been phenomenal and I’m sure he’s going to get consideration. He’s got my vote.”

While Artest said he is a little uncomfortable talking about joining the All-Star roster prior to it actually happening, he admitted being excited about the possibility – at least he was before last weekend when the Pacers lost to Houston and Washington on back-to-back nights.

“I was excited because people said I was going to be an All-Star, but then we lost two games in a row,” he said. “I wasn’t really focused on it. The main thing I’ve been focused on is wins. . . . “You take it as it comes, but I’m more happy with the wins that we get.”