Wednesday, June 23, 2010

So Crazy That It Works

Lost amid all the jollity and outré theater of Ron Artest’s post-Finals interviews were some real insights into how the most enigmatic of basketball players views himself. Artest effusively thanked his psychiatrist for helping him remain calm in tense moments, times when he thought that he sometimes checked out in the past.

It was a rare bit of honesty for a professional athlete. But the truth of the matter is that Artest has a history of acquitting himself well in the clutch, going back to one of his first moments on the national stage: a 92-88 overtime loss to Duke at Madison Square Garden during Artest’s sophomore season at St. John’s.

Los Angeles Lakers fans might collectively hold their breath when Artest receives the ball in the triangle offense, but back then Artest was St. John’s offensive fulcrum. The week before the game against Duke, Artest posted just the second triple-double in the storied history of the school. He led the Red Storm in points and assists and was second in rebounding.

But defense has always been Artest’s calling card, and he got to display his versatility against the Blue Devils. Artest muscled up former AAU teammate Elton Brand in the post, and guarded Shane Battier and Chris Carrawell on the perimeter. Unfortunately, Battier also is a flinty defender and coaxed Artest into a few charges that put the St. John’s star into foul trouble.

Artest missed over eight minutes of the second half, but thanks to Bootsy Thortnon lighting up the second-ranked Blue Devils (he finished with 40 points), the Red Storm was still in the mix by the time Artest returned for the final five minutes of regulation.

You take the good with the bad with Artest, it’s always been that way with him. In this game, he forced a terrible shot that was swatted by Brand, but Artest immediately atoned for it by poking the ball away from Carrawell for a wide-open layup that cut Duke’s lead to 73-70.

The final two minutes were a clinic in clutch play. Artest gave St. John’s a 76-75 lead with a three-point play with 1:40 remaining. An impressive steal on an inbounds play with 40 seconds left was unfortunately followed by a missed shot. After Duke regained the lead at 79-76, Artest bodied up Brand and then stole an inbounds pass. Seemingly all in one motion, Artest made the steal and then bumped into Brand to draw a foul while forcing up a three-pointer. Artest made two of the three free throws, and St. John’s trailed, 79-78. After Duke sank two free throws, Artest called for the ball and then calmly drained the tying three-pointer with 1.1 seconds left.

In overtime, luck didn’t go Artest’s way. Down 89-88 in the final minute, he knocked the ball away from Battier, but it bounced right to Corey Maggette. Artest was forced to foul, his fifth personal. Duke held on to win, but Artest had made a name for himself.

He turned pro after the season, and Artest’s basketball exploits have been shadowed by a greatest hits of bizarre antics (the brawl with the Pistons, applying for a job at Circuit City, drinking Hennessey at halftime, asking for time off from the Pacers to promote his CD). So people seemed shocked when Artest carried the Lakers in Game 7, but he always has had that type of performance in him.

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