by Conrad Brunner
November 2, 2004
Not since 1998, his sophomore year at St. John's, has Ron Artest entered a basketball season as The Man.
But with franchise cornerstone Jermaine O'Neal out indefinitely with a foot injury and starters Reggie Miller and Jeff Foster on the injured list, Artest has become the sun around which the Pacers will revolve in the early phase of the season. The Pacers open Wednesday night in Cleveland. The home opener comes Saturday night against Chicago.
"Ron Artest is our main guy right now, there's no question about that," said Coach Rick Carlisle. "We're going to need him to lead on the floor, we're going to need him to play great, we're going to need him to make other players better with his ability to pass and make plays.
"He knows that this is an opportunity to really be the true focal point of the team for this period of time."
It would appear Artest is up to the challenge. Warming up for the regular season, he totaled 59 points, 14 rebounds, seven steals and three assists in his final two exhibition appearances, going 21 of 39 from the floor (.538). Though it's dangerous to put much stock in preseason statistics, Artest's overall level of performance was reflected in the numbers.
"Ronnie's a better player now than he was any time during the season last year," said team President Larry Bird. "To me, he looks more explosive. He's shooting the ball better and he's moving better. I thought he was in the top 12-to-15 players in the league, anyway. I think he's a better player now.
"Ronnie knows what's ahead of him. We've got some key people out and he's going to have to raise the level of his game – not only Ronnie but the other players, also."
Artest has taken a low-key approach to his situation, deflecting questions about his personal performance and addressing team goals instead. After Miller was injured last Friday night in the preseason finale, it was Artest who offered the supremely confident and optimistic comment:
"We're going to be fine. We're going to be fine," he said. "I'll make sure we'll be alright."
Adjustments will have to be made. Because of his strength and the team's need, Artest will likely spend more time in the low post than has been his custom. He'll no doubt draw frequent double-teams. As the focal point of the opposing defensive strategy, Artest will need to work hard to make sure his teammates are included in the offense.
"He's going to be a guy that opposing teams key on," Carlisle said. "He's probably going to see a lot of double-teams, and we're getting our team ready to play out of those situations because those are opportunities for us to get good shots if we execute properly."
No problem, said Artest.
"If they focus all on me, then Steve (Jackson) will have a chance to step up," he said. "We're going to play together from the get-go. If they do want to double- and triple-team, we've got shooters on the team. Teams are going to have to make a decision."
Another major adjustment will be in budgeting his energy reserves. Artest invests so much of himself on defense, he occasionally drifts in and out of the offense. For the time being, he will be asked to expend equivalent effort at both ends of the floor. He also must be particularly careful to avoid foul trouble because of his enhanced importance.
Carlisle trusts Artest to understand the situation, and isn't about to suggest he dial down his aggressiveness.
"Ron's one of those unusual players that's so well-conditioned and so strong-willed that to even venture into a conversation about being less aggressive, he'd look at you cross-eyed, like you had three heads," Carlisle said. "I've just got a lot of faith, obviously, in his ability, but also his knowledge of the game and knowledge of opponents. He's going to do the right things out there. I don't have any doubt about that."
Artest is a player with broad, strong shoulders. He'll need them, if he's to carry the team, at least for awhile.