|The Lakers get a boost from Metta World Peace, who makes his only series appearance count. (Getty Images)|
LOS ANGELES -- In the locker room after the game, there stood Metta World Peace, conducting a lengthy, one-on-one TV interview. There was nothing odd about this, except for the fact that this was the man who'd saved the Lakers from themselves -- the great stabilizing force formerly known as Ron Artest, coming back just in time to extend the Lakers' season for at least one more series.
And one other thing: For the waist-up TV shot, World Peace was wearing a black, collared, button-down shirt. Below the waist, only underwear.
Yep, the Lakers are back.
"That's how the Lakers play," World Peace was saying, there in the locker room in his skivvies.
And of course, it was old Artest swooping in to save the day -- the way he'd swooped in and put in Kobe Bryant's air ball in the final seconds of Game 5 in the 2010 conference finals against Phoenix. The way he'd helped seize Game 7 of the NBA Finals that year against the Celtics.
"It's not about what happened yesterday," said Artest -- and I'll call him Artest because he told me I could and because that's who he played like Saturday night in putting a professional, grown-man defensive stranglehold on the Nuggets in a 96-87 victory that sent the Lakers into the second round. "It's, 'OK, we're here. What are we going to do today?' "
But before the Lakers had even left the building, the focus already had shifted ahead to the next challenge -- the next thunderclap of drama. Artest and the Lakers face Oklahoma City in the second round, and that would be the same Oklahoma City that employs James Harden, whose head was on the receiving end of Artest's vicious elbow near the end of the regular season. Artest's seven-game suspension for that act of violence ended just in time for him to return and put the Lakers back on track.
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But back on track for what? If nothing else, more distractions and more sideshows. The crowd that awaits Artest on Monday night in Oklahoma City will be "intense," as Kobe Bryant put it.
"The crowd's obviously going to have a field day with that, and I'm sure their players will generate some type of energy from it," Bryant said. "For us, we've just got to keep our poise and do what we do."
The poise, and what the Lakers do, both returned Saturday night -- and not a minute too soon, because the ferocious Nuggets gave them everything they could handle, and more. Normalcy was restored because Pau Gasol played like Pau Gasol for a change, getting after it to the tune of 23 points and 17 rebounds -- 11 of them offensive, and at least five of those on a single play. It was a signature moment for the Lakers; Gasol jumping and tapping and jumping and tapping and finally finishing a play that gave the Lakers a 78-75 lead with about seven minutes left. This, after the Nuggets had erased a 16-point, third-quarter deficit and built a four-point lead of their own.
"I tried to put it back the first time, and the ball didn't go in," Gasol said. "Or the second time. Or the third time. The ball kept coming to me, fortunately. I just kept jumping and jumping, and finally, it went in."
Normalcy was restored because the Lakers' other 7-footer finally woke up too. Andrew Bynum, who'd been silent on the court ever since his infamous comment with a 3-1 series lead that "closeout games are kind of easy," was only 4-for-15, but fought hard for position all night and bullied his way to 18 rebounds and six blocks.
The floor opened up because somebody in purple and gold finally made open jump shots. Steve Blake was 5-for-6 from 3-point range for 19 points, and Artest made four 3-pointers himself. George Karl, the Nuggets' brilliant coach, dared the Lakers not named Bryant to beat him, doubling Bryant and running off jump-shooters.
"They were running off guys 10 feet," Bryant said. "If you can't make those shots, you shouldn't be playing."
But mostly, the Lakers were the Lakers again because Artest came back and changed the floor defensively. Danilo Gallinari and Andre Miller, the two guys Artest alternately guarded, were a combined 2-for-19. As it turns out, Artest had kept himself in shape during the suspension with what he called "a lot of contact drills. A lot of contact drills. No B.S.-ing around."
"He made some plays that won't show up in the box score that were absolutely frickin' amazing," coach Mike Brown said.
Ah, coach Mike Brown. In the midst of finding himself pushed to a seventh game in his first playoff series as Phil Jackson's replacement, Brown had been the subject of ill-timed and conflict-of-interest-laden comments from Lakers Hall of Famer, vice president and TV commentator Magic Johnson, who'd opined Friday that Brown would be fired if the Lakers lost Game 7. The Lakers put out a statement hours before the game rejecting Magic's comments and asserting their confidence in Brown, who had to confront questions about the fiasco twice Saturday -- once at shootaround and again before the game.
After the game, no questions about that.
All the while, Brown had plenty more to worry about, such as adjusting the Lakers' early offense to get Gasol more involved as a ball-screener and getting both Gasol and Bynum on the move so the Nuggets' defense couldn't just sit in their laps as they'd done for the previous two games. And he also learned that inheriting Jackson's job is only partially tactical; it's also very much psychological, especially when it comes to the famously sensitive Gasol.
"I told him to bring it," Brown said. "I told him to bring it in front of the team, and I told him to bring it in one-on-one situations with him. I told him when Kobe's bringing the ball down in early offense, go play pick-and-roll. Get yourself involved in the play. And if Kobe waves you off, don't listen to him. Go anyway. We'll deal with that other stuff later."
There is always "other stuff" to deal with for the Lakers.
Bryant, though, went along with it -- passing willingly out of double-teams and finding teammates able to make just enough shots to slow the Nuggets' frenetic pace and loosen their packed-in defense. Still getting over the stomach bug that ailed him in Game 6, Bryant was amused when someone asked if it was hard to be that patient.
"Five championships," said Bryant, who had 17 points and eight assists. "It's not very difficult to win games. I don't have to show too much restraint."
So it's on to the next series, the next opponent, the next sideshow and the next test of these Lakers' ability to put it all aside and push Bryant toward his singular obsession -- that sixth championship.
"Some of us have been there," Bryant said. "I have to keep in mind that a lot of these guys haven't been there before. I'm used to having a team that's been through all of it, and I look around the room and it's me, Metta, Andrew, Pau and that's it. So for the rest of the guys, it's a great learning experience going through a seven-game series."
Do the Lakers have to play better to beat the Thunder?
"Pfft," Bryant said. "Yeah, just a little bit."
Let the next test begin, the next dramatic sideshow for these Lakers. The questions were already flowing for Artest, who by now had moved to his locker and put on some pants.
Was he worried about the crowd? ("That's not my concern," he said. "That's their concern.") Would he shake Harden's hand before the game? ("I don't shake the substitutions' hands. He doesn't start. I've never done that in my life.") Would he make an exception, given the circumstances? ("Oklahoma City, they don't shake hands. Some of them [do], but they don't really shake hands before the game.")
So yes, Ron Artest was back Saturday night -- the old Ron Artest. And so were the Lakers, with all their flare for the dramatic, their flaws and their bloodthirsty, five-time champion who is still standing, still chasing No. 6.
For now, the chase goes on.