The Lakers have one huge wild card they didn't have in their pocket two years ago in Ron Artest. He and Kobe Bryant might be the oddest couple in the NBA. So odd that when the Lakers signed Artest in the offseason, most of the general managers around the league didn't get it. After all, this was the guy that stalked Bryant with the crazy face in the playoffs last year just because he wanted to tell him something. Artest rides the line between clever and crazy, pretty much camping out under people's skin. Paul Pierce will be lucky enough to have Artest pestering him all series, but he's gotten used to it over the course of his career.
"He likes to bang you, get in your body, grab you, hold you, pull your shorts down, you know anything," Pierce said. "He'll try anything just to get in his opponent's head. But just from playing against him over the years I've become used to the things that he tries to do and I just try to go out there and play my game and not get into the antics with him."
That's right. Pull your shorts down. Then, he sang a song about it. The words went something like this.
"Paul, I'm so sorry to humiliate you on national TV by pulling your shorts down/ I won't do it again."
Artest's explanation: "I ain't know what was going through my mind. Paul was killing me in the beginning. I had to do something to stop him. Then he turns around and hits a 3-pointer in my face. So I think I did that all for nothing. I think I'm just going to take off everything. Socks, sneakers, everything."
Artest's stint in Los Angeles has been up-and-down. There have been times when Bryant and Phil Jackson have wanted to kill him. Then, thereare time when they wanto carry him off the court on their shoulders.
Perfect example: Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals. He heaved up a 3-pointer with 22 seconds left on the shot clock with under a minute left giving the Suns a chance to tie it on a Jason Richardson 3-ball. At that moment he was public enemy No. 1. Then, he put back a Bryant miss that gave the Lakers a 103-101 win. The first person to hug him was Bryant.
From the outside looking in, Artest is the perfect fit.
"He makes a difference," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "I think that's the one thing that's been overlooked all year for them. I've heard all year how Artest doesn't fit, hasn't fit, and I'm thinking, he's been perfect, because it's allowed Kobe not to have to guard the best player every night. 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. So that's where he's been perfect for them."
Pierce's playoff battles with Artest go back to 2003 when the Celtics bounced the Pacers in the first round. Pierce averaged 25.8 points in the six-game series, but his respect for Artest went without saying.
"He's one of the best defenders I've ever played against, and he takes pride in that," Pierce said. "Just being able to lock down opponents night in, night out. We've had some battles and it'll be a tough challenge."