Three games into the NBA Finals and we know a couple things for sure:
– Derek Fisher is still a stone-cold killer when it matters most
– Homecourt advantage means absolutely nothing in this series
– Despite his poor offense, Ron Artest is a huge upgrade over Trevor Ariza
The time has finally come to end the debate over who the Lakers would have been better off with starting at small forward. The fact of the matter is despite a drop-off in offensive production, the Lakers are a much better team overall this season than they were during their title run last year.
Artest’s defense has been unbelievable to this point in the playoffs. Take a look at the regular season and playoff numbers of Kevin Durant, whom Artest blanketed in the first round.
30.1 Points Per Game, 47.6% shooting, 36.5% from three, 3.3 turnovers per game
First Round vs. Lakers:
25.0 Points Per Game, 35% shooting, 28.6% from three, 3.67 turnovers per game
Artest was single-handedly responsible for Durant’s dip in production. The fact that he was able to single-cover KD35 all series long was the exact reason the Lakers were able to adjust and double Russell Westbrook every time he went to the basket.
During the regular season, Durant became the youngest scoring champion ever, looking like a superstar and scoring basically at will as teams were keying in on him with single and double-teams. One round with Artest and Durant looked like a third-year player struggling to score.
In the second round against Utah, Artest was usually matched up with Kyle Korver or someone who didn’t really have great numbers to begin with, so his defensive presence wasn’t really felt except the few times he matched up with Deron Williams.
In the Conference Finals against Phoenix, Artest was matched up with either Grant Hill or Jason Richardson. Again his defensive presence wasn’t really felt, although Richardson averaged nearly six points less per game against the Lakers than he did in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
But let’s get to the one round that matters the most to Lakers fans, and that is the NBA Finals. The Lakers have been matched up with the last team to beat them in a playoff series, the Celtics. Everyone remembers that series for the embarrassing finish the Lakers had to endure and also for how Paul Pierce had his way with guys like Luke Walton and Vlad Radmanovic en route to a Finals MVP performance.
The difference between this year’s Finals and those of 2008 has been Artest, who has locked down Pierce to such an extreme degree that Pierce has the same look on his face that you see on most victims from Law and Order: SVU. By simply comparing Pierce’s numbers in the regular season to those in the Finals, it doesn’t seem like there has been much of a fall off:
18.3 points, 47.2% FG, 41.4% three point shooting
Finals vs. Lakers:
16.3 points, 36% shooting, 37.5% three point shooting
While his scoring and field goal percentage numbers are down, his three-point shooting is still respectable right? While the numbers look good, they are deceptive. Take a look at Pierce’s averages for Games 2 and 3.
Game 2: 2-11 shooting, 6-6 free throws, 10 points
Game 3: 5-12 shooting, 2-3 free throws, 15 points
In those two games he averaged 12.5 points on 7-23 shooting. Furthermore, of the five field goals Pierce hit in Game 3, two were in the final minute with the game already decided.
Game 1 is one that many Celtics/Pierce fans will cite as proof that Pierce can score and has just had a couple off games. The argument is that Pierce had 24 points in the game and shot a respectable percentage. Those are both good points, but something that goes unnoticed is how many free throws Pierce shot in that game — many coming on questionable calls, but who am I to nitpick?
Game 1: 6-13 shooting, 12-13 free throws, 24 points
As was the case with Game 3, three of Pierce’s baskets came in the final two minutes with the game already decided. So for the three games this series, Pierce has hit 13 shots … and five of them were when the game was in garbage time or already decided. It has been clear to anyone who has watched the series that Artest has gotten into Pierce’s head by now.
This, of course, hasn’t stopped Pierce from talking the talk of an MVP all series long. Pierce was seen jawing with the crowd and talking trash to Lakers players frequently in the first two games in Los Angeles, all while not doing much on the court. But that is exactly what Artest has limited Pierce to: a running mouth.
The most noticeable sequence came in Game 2 when Pierce announced to the Staples crowd that “We ain’t coming back to LA!” This is the same Paul Pierce who made two field goals for that entire game, and is now praying they come back to LA, otherwise the Lakers will be leaving Boston as NBA Champions for the second year in a row.
And despite his wacky ways, his inconsistent offense, and hilarious quotes in interviews, Ron Artest stands as one of the main reasons the Lakers are halfway to yet another championship. If the Lakers do end up taking home the championship, all Lakers fans worldwide will just have to do one thing:
Belal Abdelfattah is BSO’s newest writer and comes from a long background in sports writing at the Sports Authority Blog and The Block Radio. You can follow Belal on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/belal_a