HOUSTON -- Ron Artest is enjoying the spotlight. He is speaking freely, with brutal honesty and a huge smile. And for once, the topic is something that is happening on the basketball court, not off it.
Artest was on a roll Friday at the Rockets' shootaround before Game 3, saying Kobe Bryant got away with an elbow to the throat that precipitated their verbal skirmish in Game 2 and that the referees treat him differently because of his reputation.
"I think (Bryant) knows he got away with one," Artest said. "That's the referees' job. They see the second reaction. They never see the first with me. Joey [Crawford] was doing a great job. He was involved in every play except the Kobe plays."
As for how Artest feels about being ejected for jawing with Bryant after the elbowing incident, he said, "That's not racial profiling. It's past history profiling."
That's just a preview of what Artest had on his mind in the hours before Game 3 Friday night at the Toyota Center.
UPDATE: For example: Artest called Crawford's decision to eject him "a bad ejection;" said that he told Bryant during their confrontation, "If you're gonna get out of line, I'm gonna get out of line;" and warned that he'll give the referees three chances to protect him in Game 3. And if they don't? Two things will happen, according to Artest.
Thing No. 1: "I'm gonna report it to the police," he said.
And Thing No. 2: "Then I gotta protect myself."
The league office ruled that Bryant's elbow landed in Artest's chest and not his neck, thus ruling out the possibility of suspending Bryant for Game 3. Artest had some fun with that one, too, saying, "Oh, OK. If they say so." But after Kobe's elbow, Artest's response, and Derek Fisher's hip-check to Luis Scola -- which did earn him a suspension for Game 3 -- tensions are high and threats are flowing freely in what has suddenly become the most physical and intriguing series in the conference semifinals.
The one place threats and yap aren't coming from would be Bryant's mouth. Kobe deflected all Artest-related queries at the Lakers' shootaround an hour later, but he finally caved in and offered this: "You guys know me, man. You know I don't back down from anybody. Simple as that."
It's not going to be so simple for the officiating crew: Steve Javie, Sean Corbin, and Ron Garretson. If it's any consolation, Javie was the crew chief for Game 7 of the chippy series between the Celtics and Bulls. In a series that saw Rajon Rondo slapping Brad Miller's face and throwing Kirk Hinrich into the scorer's table, cooler heads prevailed in Game 7.
One thing about Artest: He knows how to jab you where it hurts. So he proceeded to join the chorus of arm-chair analysts who have suggested that perhaps the Lakers are overcompensating because of how the Celtics outmuscled them in the Finals last year. Except Artest said it better than that.
"Last year, what the Celtics did to them was more about manhood than basketball," Artest said. "They took their manhood. They took it right from under them."
Predictably, Lakers coach Phil Jackson had some fun with all of this while addressing the media on the Toyota Center court.
"Oh, I don't know, there’s been a lot of that talk," Jackson said. "You have all those guys and they’re sitting at their desk speculating on what we have to do to win or not to win. But it’s about being aggressive. We’re not a heavy team. Guys like Artest, we only give up 20 or 30 pounds to him at all our spots. So he can walk guys to wherever he wants to down underneath the basket. If the referees aren’t going to call it, we have to provide support for ourselves. And that’s the way it is."
Asked if Bryant crossed the line with his elbow to Artest, Jackson said, "You know, what Kobe did happens every single game, maybe 20 times in a game. A big guy’s trying to shove a smaller guy out underneath the basket, and they’re going to have to fight for their life underneath there. It happens all the time. It’s just got a focus because of what happened. We can focus on it as a league and in the press in the playoffs, but those things happen all the time in our game. This is not a game for boys. This is a game for men."
I agree. But that doesn't mean I will deny Artest's right to use the incident as motivation.
"I think they did a good job getting us out of our game, because we were comfortable playing basketball," Artest said. "And it turned into like a fight. We've got to remember just to play basketball when it turns into a fight."
And that it will be, one way or another, in a few short hours.