LOS ANGELES – The other night, following the Lakers' ignominious loss to the Clippers, a defeat that brought their season's disappointing second half to a merciful conclusion, I found myself among the makeshift assembly at Ron Artest's locker.
Having just twisted an ankle, he was shin-deep in ice. "Nothing serious," he said. "I'll be fine."
I don't think I was alone in harboring some doubts on the subject of Artest, or his ankle. Then someone asked if he was still the toughest defender in the league.
"I don't think anyone's tougher than me," he deadpanned
I left the Lakers den feeling good, my sense of cynicism invigorated. His ankle's good? Still the toughest guy in the league? Truth was, anyone with Artest's suddenly stylized coiffure does not merit a vote of confidence. The dye job, intended to make him another L.A. blonde, seems to have rusted. And really now, what can you expect from a guy with orange hair?
On the eve of the playoffs, Ron Artest figured to be half of the first round's most intriguing matchup. That would pair him against Kevin Durant, who is 6-foot-9 going on 6-foot-11, and, at 21, the NBA's youngest-ever leading scorer. This is exactly why the Lakers opted to sign Artest - and not re-sign Trevor Ariza - after winning a championship last year. It was thought that Artest was a better and tougher defender, and a more seasoned one. But now, I couldn't help but wonder - and again, I'm not alone - if Ariza, who is longer, younger, quicker and does not have orange hair, wasn't better suited for the task.
And while one game does not a series make, it was enough for me reconsider the subject of orange hair. Ron Artest missed a slew of open threes Sunday at the Staples Center, going 1 for 8. Then again, so was Durant, 1 for 8, and he wasn't so open. Stat of the game? Easy. Durant was 7 for 24. The Oklahoma City Thunder - very talented and very young - figure to win a game or two in this series, but none at all with Durant shooting 29 percent.
"His shooting was off today and I think he will shoot much better in the next game," said Phil Jackson.
He's not going to shoot worse. Still, shooters and defenders inevitably conspire to produce numbers that so deviate from the norm. It wasn't just an off-night for Durant. And it wasn't just great defense. But it was mostly great defense.
"Was he frustrated? I don't know," said Artest. "I didn't ask him."
In his best effort to be politically correct, Artest added: "I wasn't focused on what I was doing. I was more focused on the team." He was referring to both the Lakers' effort and their ambition. This was just the first game of a first-round playoff series. As for effort, Artest was encouraged, but that's all. In a regular season game, he figured, the Lakers play about 12 minutes at less than full-speed. On Sunday, it was more like four minutes. Sounded good to me.
Nevertheless, I argued that holding Durant - who averages 30 points a game - to 7 of 24 shooting had to give Artest a measure of personal satisfaction.
"Nah, I'm not satisfied. I'm never satisfied," he said. "One time I held Sprewell" - that would be Latrell Sprewell - "to zero points."
But this was the league's leading scorer, I said.
"If someone else did it, they'd be happy," said Artest. "But I've been guarding their best player my whole career."
That career is now in its 10th season, and while Artest says he's not trying to prove anything to anybody, he is. He wants to please. He wants to justify the Lakers acquisition. He also noted that the years that coincided with his physical peak were spent - make that, wasted - in Sacramento.
"I want to show people who I am," said Artest. "... I've got to still be able to dominate. It's not enough."
Did he give enough Sunday afternoon, someone asked? "I don't know how much more physical I can get," he said. "I gave 100 percent."
All true. And before I go any further, let me note some other truths regarding Game 1. First, there was Russell Westbrook, a second-year point guard from Los Angeles. With Artest on Durant, Westbrook carried the Thunder. With 35-year-old Derek Fisher trying to guard him, Westbrook got easier penetration than a porn star.
Next, other than Durant's shooting percentage, the game's second-most important number: 30:29 . That would Andrew Bynum's minutes played. A few days ago, Jackson didn't know how much he could out of his young, talented and perennially injured center, who missed the last 13 games of the season. Maybe 5-10 minutes? Try 30 minutes, 13 points, 12 rebounds. This, too, bodes well for the Lakers. Even if Durant comes back with a more typical game, there's no way for the thunder to match up with seven-footers Bynum and Pau Gasol, who tallied 19 points and 13 boards.
In the meantime, Artest's will re-devote himself to his 'do. "I'm going to get a couple new colors," he said.
Then he ran a hand over his scalp, before converting the final question into another victory for candor.
Why? He was asked.
"I like it when they talk about me."