WALTHAM -- Before the season started, back when Ron Artest and Larry Bird were posing for magazine covers, Artest, the 2004 NBA Defensive Player of the Year, gave Paul Pierce perhaps the ultimate compliment.
When asked how difficult it is to guard Pierce, Artest said, ''With Paul Pierce, you've got to hope he has an off night. When he gets going, he's hard to stop. You just have to play hard and hope he misses. He's in the top two [of tough players to guard]. I come first, then Paul, Tracy [McGrady], Kobe [Bryant], and LeBron [James]."
Knowing the question came from Boston, Artest may have been trying to please his audience. But given his recent behavior, beginning with his December trade request, his apology for making that request through the media, and then his initial hesitancy to join the Sacramento Kings, Artest doesn't seem like someone capable of judging any audience well enough to please it. Besides, Artest and Pierce have a long history of hard-fought matchups in both the regular season and playoffs.
For his part, Pierce sounded as if he looked forward to facing Artest, who was traded from the Indiana Pacers to the Kings Wednesday, at the TD Banknorth Garden tonight. Pierce spoke yesterday after practice about his respect for Artest as a defensive player. With Artest out of game shape, having not played since Dec. 6 against Dallas, Pierce recognizes Artest will not be at the top of his game.
''It doesn't matter what you've been doing as far as conditioning," said Pierce. ''Until you play in a real basketball game, it's tough to get into that kind of shape. It's going to take him a few games. I'm going to help him [get into shape].
''I don't even think about [playing him]. I just go out there and try to do the same things I've been doing. I know he's a great defensive player and all that, but I just go out there and do things that I can do. We play our game.
''I'm going to tell him, 'Welcome back.' It will probably be something brief. I think we have mutual respect for each other, meeting at the All-Star games, things he's said about me, things I've said about him in the paper. That's about it."
When asked before the season started what he would do the next time he faced Pierce, Artest said, ''I'm going to pull his pants down," referring to a tactic he has tried before. Yesterday, it was jokingly suggested Pierce might want to tie his shorts a little tighter.