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BILL PLASCHKE

Ron Artest's defense on Kevin Durant is pretty special to Lakers

The Lakers forward isn't too impressed with himself even after helping force the league's leading scorer into missing 17 of 24 shots in the playoff opener.

April 18, 2010|Bill Plaschke

Round 1 to the Wacko.

"I couldn't tell you what kind of job I did," said Ron Artest, looking completely confused after complete domination.

Round 1 to the Ron-O-Lantern.

"I'm not going to fool myself into thinking I did anything special," said the carrot-topped Artest after handing the Lakers their opening playoff victory on a silver platter of elbows and effort.

Round 1 to the Anti-Ariza.

"If somebody else did this, they'd be happy but I'm not satisfied," said Artest after what were surely his three most satisfying hours of the season.

He may profess to not know where he is, or who he is, or what he's doing, and after spending six months listening to his mind roam, you may be inclined to agree with him. But make no mistake: On this suffocating Sunday afternoon, Ron Artest was completely cognizant of Kevin Durant.

Artest shoved him, squeezed him, shouldered him, turned the league's leading scorer into just another confused tourist from Oklahoma City, Durant wandering aimlessly off the Staples Center court with 24 points on 24 shots after the Lakers' 87-79 victory over the Thunder.

While Artest walked into more questions he could not answer.

Did you flip the switch?

''What does that mean?"

Was Durant frustrated?

''I don't know, I'm not sure, I didn't ask him."

Nobody asked, but in a game in which Derek Fisher was repeatedly burned by Russell Westbrook while Kobe Bryant was repeatedly betrayed by his injuries he uncomfortably missed five free throws and 13 shots the Lakers would not have shined if Artest did not do their dirty work.

Durant missed his first three shots with Artest in his grill. Durant missed his last important shot the Thunder trailing by six in the final two minutes with Artest knocking him silly. In between, the lanky kid was bounced around from baseline to baseline, making just three baskets in the second half, overall making just one of eight three-balls, completely Thunder-struck.

"It was discouraging, especially for myself," Durant said.

Overall, Durant missed 17 of those 24 shots, committed a game-high four turnovers, and didn't even dominate in what he does best. After all the pregame talk from Lakers Coach Phil Jackson about Durant receiving favorable calls, the kid attempted one fewer free throw (11) than Bryant, while Artest did not complain much beyond a scrunched face.

"A couple of the calls were good," said Artest, who had five fouls. ''A couple of the other calls, I don't want to get fined."

In all, a decent victory for the Lakers, but a bigger victory for the nutty new guy.

"He looked quick," Bryant said. "He looks like the Ron of old."

Until now, he's mostly been the Ron of mold. Remember, Artest was brought here last summer while Trevor Ariza was allowed to leave because Artest could supposedly bring a toughness that Ariza could not. Yet during most of the regular season, he played as if wearing not boxing gloves, but oven mitts, carefully navigating the court and rarely controlling anything but his temper.

I thought the Lakers were crazy to make the switch; I still do, and I'm not alone. But although what happened Sunday will not be enough to convince us critics they will need 15 more wins for that to happen -- at least we can all now poke each other with a shared realization.

So that's why he's here!

"I'm not here to show anybody about me, I'm here to show them the team," Artest said.

In his locker hung a Team Pacquiao jacket. On his face was a scowl. Nobody was going to argue with him. Nobody will ever argue with him.

"I like to show people what it was like when I could play defense," Artest finally admitted, as close as he will come to acknowledging the pressure of replacing Ariza.

It's a pressure that his teammates have worked to lighten, realizing that Artest will take much the heat if the Lakers don't repeat.

"We won a championship, he's replacing a guy on a championship team, I'm sure Ron has thought about that," Lamar Odom said. "But we tell him not to feel the pressure. Ron is with us now. Trevor is our guy, but he's no longer here, Ron is one of us, we've got his back."

Fine, but who's got his hair? Artest impulsively dyed it yellow last week, but by Sunday afternoon it had turned an awful orange. Combined with his black goatee, it looked like a Halloween costume gone wrong. And it's only going to get worse.

"I'm going to add a couple of colors, I'm going to be colorful in the playoffs," Artest said late Sunday afternoon..

Why on earth would you do that to yourself?

"I like it when people talk bad about me," he said.

No wonder he seemed so unhappy.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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