Too early to decide Artest vs. Ariza

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NBA_artest.jpgRon Artest owned up to it before the season — “If the Lakers don’t win a title, blame me.”

Bill Plaschke decided mid-March was waiting long enough to start that blame game in a Los Angeles Times column today.

In a move engineered by the Buss family last summer, Artest was signed here from the Houston Rockets to replace (Trevor) Ariza, who then signed with Houston, after balking at the Lakers’ contract offer. It is a move that some Lakers folks would now take back. It was a move that many of us thought should never have happened in the first place.

Ariza didn’t have Artest’s star power, but he was a better offensive complement to Kobe Bryant, a more versatile team defender, and a guy who had survived the championship battle to win a ring. He was a known quantity who would have been an invaluable soul in the difficult quest to win a second consecutive title. Artest was a Lakers unknown who is still, well, a Lakers unknown.

These Lakers are not last year’s Lakers. The beautiful flowing offense shows itself only in flashes, with the team relying more on pick-and-roll plays and just their pure talent.

But this is a better defensive Lakers team than last year. Ron Artest has risen to the occasion and caused problems for opposing wings, a healthy Andrew Bynum (well, not right now but mostly) has been a force in the paint and for much of the season the Lakers were on top of the league. Things may not be as consistent as fans or the coaching staff would like, but these Lakers can be a very intimidating defense.

So the Lakers are not as good on offense but better on defense with Artest vs. Ariza? How is that different than what anybody expected before the regular season? Plaschke got Artest to say Ariza is a better player than him, but anybody who has interviewed Artest more than once knew that Artest would give you that answer. Ron-Ron is in the stage of his career where he judges himself by rings, and Ariza has one. Artest admits he is still proving himself — to fans, to teammates and to himself.

For the Lakers the regular season is not where this campaign will be judged. Or this debate, for that matter.

When the games slow down and tighten up, we know Ariza could step up and make plays — key threes and big steals.

Can Ron Artest? The Magic 8 Ball says, “please ask again later.” Try mid-June. Because before then, we don’t know if Artest is a better fit than Ariza.

Paul George floors Jeremy Lamb with crossover, hits step-back 3-pointer over him (video)

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The Thunder suffered a rough home loss to the Hornets, but at least Oklahoma City produced a couple fun highlights.

Not only did Russell Westbrook have this powerful dunk, Paul George put the moves on Jeremy Lamb.

David West pump fakes past one Trail Blazer, posterizes another (video)

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David West is 37 years old.

Three Things to Know: Rockets extend win streak to 10, Thunder… not so much

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA. Here’s a roundup of Monday night’s action you might have missed while paying for a $14,000 Uber ride.

1) Rockets fall behind in a shootout, but come back from 13 down late in the third to extend win streak to 10. This was as good a game as the Pelicans could play without Anthony Davis — they put up 103 points on 58.7 percent shooting and hitting 17 threes. DeMarcus Cousins was a beast in the paint, while Jrue Holiday and E’Twaun Moore couldn’t seem to miss from beyond the arc. Late in the third the Pelicans were up 13, and they were up 10 at the start of the fourth.

It was not enough.

James Harden had 12 points in the fourth (and finished the game with a career-high 17 assists).

Chris Paul added 11 in the fourth, and the Rockets stormed back winning the fourth 37-20 and the game 130-123, extending their win streak to 10 games.

The Rockets are 21-4 and are outscoring teams by 11.4 points per 100 possessions this season — they are the best team in the NBA right now. CP3 and Harden mesh on offense — the Rockets are +7.8 points per 100 when they are on the court together — and Houston surprisingly has the fifth best defense in the NBA this season. None of this is a fluke. This team is playing hard right now, establishing an identity, and establishing themselves as a contender.

Can they beat a healthy Warriors team in a seven-game series? I am not going that far, I think there are things that can be exploited in a series, but we are five months away from the Rockets needing to answer that question. What Houston has shown is it is the team best suited to challenge Golden State — the Rockets can play at pace and thrive, they have multiple elite scoring playmakers (and coach Mike D’Antoni staggers them so one is almost always on the court), they have a switchable defense that can attack the Warriors wings, and they have the right mindset. GM Daryl Morey put together a team to go after the Warriors, and he did it better than anyone. They are a legit threat to the title holders, and the Rockets should only get better as the season moves along.

2) Celtics lose with Kyrie Irving out. Thunder lose because… you tell me? There were a couple of upsets Monday night in the NBA, but only one was easy to excuse.

The lowly Chicago Bulls have not been quite so lowly the past week, winning three straight games, the latest one handily against the Boston Celtics 108-85. Credit best friends Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis (*cough*) who combined for 47 points, plus the improved play of Kris Dunn lately continued as he had a dozen points. We would normally call this a terrible loss for the Celtics, and you can be sure Brad Stevens didn’t like it, but with Kyrie Irving sitting out with a left quad contusion, there is at least a good reason for the off night.

There is no good reason for the Thunder — fully healthy — to lose at home to the Charlotte Hornets 116-103. The Hornets hit 13-of-25 from three, and Dwight Howard outplayed Steven Adams all night on his way to 23 points, Kemba Walker had 19 points and 9 assists, but this is the kind of game the Thunder should win. After a Russell Westbrook highlight slam over Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the game was tied 66-66, but then the Hornets went on a 22-2 run. Of late, the Thunder looked like they were turning a corner with three straight wins, but then followed it up losing 2-of-3 now and needing to go to overtime against a shorthanded Grizzlies team to get that one win. Royce Young re-tweeted himself and hit the nail on the head.

There is no one thing wrong with the Thunder, but more and more focus is turning to Carmelo Anthony. Not just his lack of defense or his shooting slump — he had 11 points Monday and is shooting 33 percent overall and 16.7 percent from three his last five games — but the roster depth OKC gave up to get him. Paul George and Russell Westbrook have a grove together (the Thunder are +4.8 per 100 when they are paired) but things slow when Anthony is added to the mix and another star sits while Anthony plays. In ‘Melo’s last five games OKC is -1.8 per 100 with Anthony on the court.

The Thunder still have time, but each day the inconsistent play and losing get more concerning. As George said after the game, “We can say we’re going to figure it out, we can say all that, but at some point it’s got to stop.”

3) Matt Barnes retires. Barnes announced Monday on Instagram that his 15-year NBA run was over.

For a lot of fans, mention Barnes and they think of the guy who tried to get in a fight with Derek Fisher. Or the New York nightclub incident with Cousins. Or the guy who was a pest on the court and seemed a magnet for technical fouls and fines from the league office. But Barnes was the kind of guy you wanted coming off the bench on your team and hated to play against — he went hard, he could shoot threes, he defended, and he brought a spark to the game. He was the kind of opponent you hate to go against.

Barnes was a second-round pick out of UCLA who played for nine teams during his career. He was the guy teams turned to for a spark off the bench — both because he could shoot the rock and because he played a fiery, emotional game. Barnes finished his career averaging 8.2 points and 4.6 rebounds per game. Barnes won an NBA title with the Warriors last season, and he played well after Kevin Durant went down with a knee injury and Barnes was thrust into a larger role (the Warriors went on a 14-game win streak in that time).

While he had a rough exterior, off the court he was one of the more thoughtful basketball interviews out there — ask him about the game and he gave smart, calm, intelligent answers, not just clichés. He was active with charities and gave of his time and money, it wasn’t just a tax write off for him. He’ll be missed by some of us, but he’s a guy ready for life after basketball.

Rockets’ Clint Capela dunks, blocks, plays DeMarcus Cousins to standstill (VIDEO)

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Welcome to Clint Capela‘s big night.

Going toe-to-toe with DeMarcus Cousins — who has been playing at an All-NBA level this season and had 24 and 14 on Monday night — the Rockets’ athletic big played Cousins to a standstill. Capela had a career-high 28 points on 13-of-14 from the field with most of his shots being dunks (every one of this shots was at the rim), plus he had five blocks, most of Cousins.

It was the best game the Swiss national has had as a pro, who also had eight rebounds on the night. Check out his big night above.