Lakers Season In Ron’s Hands

Ron Artest will cost the Lakers a third straight NBA title.

I can see it.

Kobe will be double-teamed in the fourth quarter of a series clinching playoff game. Time is running down. 10…9…He will survey the court, elbows flailing, pivot foot barely attached to the floor as two defenders surround him without fouling. He will see a wide open man at the top of the key. 8…Kobe will pass him the ball contingent on the fact that he will break the double-team and get the ball right back. 7…Kobe passes, breaks it and immediately demands the ball. He’s got the shot. But he won’t get the ball back. In a panic, the open man will heave a 28-footer. It’s game 7 all over again, they will say. He’s going to do it again! But not this time. With time still on the clock, Ron Artest will shoot an airball and the Lakers will lose. Lightning won’t strike a third time.

Trust me, this scenario scares the hell out of Laker fans. They may not show it now, but when a crucial playoff game comes down to a single possession, and believe me at some point it will, they will be petrfied at the thought of Ron Artest having the 2010-2011 season in his hands.

But for at least one night, Ron Artest could do no wrong. He blew kisses to the fans like an Oscar winner, he flexed his arms, showing off his obscenely large, linebackeresque left and right biceps and even did a little dance after hitting a key off-balance 15-footer in the Lakers 139-137 three overtime thriller against the Suns.

Artest shot 7-14 for 18 points, five of which came in the final two minutes of the third overtime. He shot 3-5 from three and had a key steal and dunk to help seal the victory.

The Lakers have been unstoppable since the all-star break, winning 13 of their first 14 games. They are winning with defense giving up over 100 points only twice in that span and both of those games went into overtime.

Last week, I wrote that all is well in Hollywood. Despite a loss to Miami, everything is still good in Lakerland. Today, ESPN ran a feature by Ramona Shelburne that discussed how Artest is slowly coming out of his funk. The feature described how players and Laker management tried to communicate to Artest his importance to the team and a championship run, despite his struggles earlier in the season.

The feature says his stats have inched up since the all-star break and the trade deadline, and maybe some have. But some have not. Excuse me for thinking that the Lakers still have work to do. Consider the fact that Ron Artest made news the other night against the Suns for finally playing a solid game. In March, Artest is shooting 37.2% from the field (down from 42% in February), and only 32% from 3-point range. His true shooting percentage of 48% is a full 3% worse than last season’s.

What happens if Kobe duplicates his 6-24 performance in a game 7, like he did in last year’s NBA finals? Artest was heroic that night, putting up 20 points 5 rebounds and 5 steals. This season, Artest has eclipsed 20 points one time and that was in a February 23 overtime victory against the Trailblazers, when he scored 24.

Granted, when playing alongside Kobe Bryant, the odds of even getting enough looks to reach 20 points is slim – just ask Pau Gasol – but can Ron repeat that Finals performance when the Lakers need him? He’s averaging career lows in nearly every category and his defense has been uneven at times.

Artest swarmed Kevin Durant for six straight games in last year’s first round, holding him to only 35% shooting and 25 points a game. In game 6 and 7 of the Finals, he held Paul Pierce to 37% from the field. Slightly above the NBA average defensively won’t get it done in the post-season for Artest. If he can’t contribute on offense, he has to duplicate his defensive prowess of last year’s post-season.

Teams in the playoffs will hound Kobe and try to rough up Gasol. So who will step up? Andrew Bynum has been playing better basketball since coming off numerous knee injuries. But as a young center with a history of knee trouble, he is bound to have up and down games in the post-season. The interior play of Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol could determine how the west shakes out. Pau Gasol has been his usual 20 and 10 but it is the play of Lamar Odom this season that has Kobe saying after the Suns game that L.O. is “sixth man of the year. Hands down.”

Along with the improved play of Odom, the Laker bench is deeper than last season’s squad. The addition of Matt Barnes may hide some of Artest’s warts, but come crunch time, odds are Phil Jackson will likely have Artest on the floor for defensive purposes.

Last postseason, Artest had the game winning put back in game five of the Western Conference Finals against the Suns, instinctively placing himself in the perfectly right place at exactly the right moment. He had Game 7 against the Celtics. Lightning struck twice. I can’t see it happening again.

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