By and large, the two teams that will converge on the Staples Center floor Thursday night for Game 1 of the NBA Finals are the same two that played for all the marbles two years ago. The Celtics still have their Big Three, the Lakers still have Kobe Bryant and a wall of seven-footers in front of him, and many of the supporting actors are the same.
So on Monday, when the Celtics met with the media after practice to talk C’s-Lakers, no one wanted to talk about ’08. They wanted to talk about the things that made this matchup different.
Most importantly, Ron Artest.
Artest, an 11-year veteran who’s bounced around to the Bulls, Pacers, Kings and Rockets, is in the playoffs with the Lakers for the first time. In Southern California, he’s the new kid on the block — but to a few of the Celtics, he’s an old nemesis.
“We’ve been playing against each other in the playoffs since he was in Indiana,” Paul Pierce said Monday. “He’s just a great competitor, a guy who’s been on All-Defensive teams, a guy who I’ve matched up with for the past 11 years, and he’s just one of the best defenders I’ve ever played against. He takes pride in that, just being able to lock down his opponents night in and night out. We’ve had some battles. It’ll be a tough challenge. He’s one of the best defenders the NBA has ever seen.”
Artest has long been used as the defensive stopper against the other team’s best offensive player. And Pierce, of course, has long been his team’s best offensive player. Naturally, the two have butted heads over the years.
“It’s a rough one,” coach Doc Rivers said of the matchup between Artest and Pierce. “But they’re both older now. Maybe they’ve slowed down enough that the refs can see the fouls. And the flops.”
Listed at 6-foot-7 and 260 pounds, Artest is one of the few guys in the NBA with the quickness to stay in front of anyone at the wing position but also with the muscle to beat them up. He’s a tough defender that can grind on anyone after one game, let alone seven.
“He’s the most physical player at that position, the wing position,” Pierce said. “Even though he plays the forward/guard position, he plays you like a power forward/center. He likes to bang you, get into your body, grab you, hold you, pull your shorts down. He’s going to try anything.”
Artest is the biggest reason this series is different from the NBA Finals of two years ago. He’s one of the game’s best defensive stoppers, he brings boundless energy, and as the Suns discovered in the Western Conference finals, he’s not afraid to hit a big shot when his team needs it.
But the aspect of his game that goes unnoticed is how Artest’s strengths play into the Laker system.
“Ron is a perfect complement to Kobe,” Pierce explained. “You know, last time we played them in the Finals, you saw Kobe going around from guarding me, to Ray Allen, to [Rajon] Rondo. He doesn’t have that pressure now. You’ve got a guy in Ron Artest that can do that. When you have that type of guy, it leaves you free to not really think so hard on defense, and do what he does best — control the game, make clutch shots, and will his team to wins.”
When Artest’s doing his job, Kobe does his. And that’s what makes the Lakers go.
“I think that’s the one thing that’s been overlooked,” Rivers said. “I’ve heard all year about how Artest hasn’t fit — but I’m thinking he’s been perfect. He’s allowed Kobe not to have to guard the best player every night. And I think it’s clear, you can see it in Kobe’s offensive numbers. He’s as fresh as I’ve ever seen him in the playoffs, and I think it’s due to Ron Artest.”
He may not look it, but in a backhanded sort of way, Ron Artest is the key to this series. Pierce, and the rest of the Celtics for that matter, will have to be ready.