What is going on with Ron Artest?

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Twice last week, when the Lakers needed a bucket at the end of the game, the ball ended up in the hands of Ron Artest. And he missed.

It seemed fitting, because Artest has not seemed himself — however you wish to define that — lately.  This was the guy was the Lakers MVP of Game 7 of the NBA finals. The guy with the game-winning putback in Game 5 against Phoenix. With the key threes against Utah last playoffs. By the time he was on a Wheaties box it looked like Ron Artest had finally fit in.

But right now, Matt Barnes is fitting in more. Artest played just 17 minutes against the Rockets (the Lakers fourth loss in a row) and he was not sent in to stop Kevin Martin or the surprisingly hot Shane Battier in the fourth quarter.

Artest’s points, rebounds, assists, shot attempts, pretty much everything are down from last season. He is averaging just 8.7 points per game. That is largely because he is playing fewer minutes than last season, with Barnes getting more run.

When you watch him, on offense he seems to be breaking out of the triangle more often, and Synergy shows his isolation offense has been terrible. He is shooting the three better than ever, he is still strong when he plays catch-and-shoot (41.7 percent from three) but he seems less content to do that.

But it’s not about the offense, right? Artest is supposed to be the Lakers defensive stopper. Except that Phil Jackson seems to be using him less and less for that. The stats show that when teams try to run isolation on Artest he is still very effective. However, he doesn’t seem to be fighting through picks with the power and fervency for which he is known.

For his part, Jackson told Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles that everything is just fine.

“I told him he’s still our defensive stopper,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said when asked after Thursday’s practice if Artest’s role was in fact changing this year. “He was out there at the end of the Memphis game the night before. Some of the guys are a little older. The guys who are older than 30, in back-to-backs, I want to watch their minutes if I can….

“Ron’s still a guy that we depend on to stop people,” Jackson reiterated. “He says, ‘I don’t care if I play two minutes or 42 minutes as long as we win,’ so that’s the right attitude.”

Artest echoed that.

“Rather than be frustrated, I’d rather just stay ready,” Artest said before Friday’s win against the Kings that stopped the Lakers’ slide. “If I play one minute for the whole game it doesn’t matter, it’s just about us winning. That’s it.

“I love playing basketball so much and right now I feel like I came back improved [from last season], but I’m not the coach so it’s not my job to determine my role on the team. … My job is to go in there and try to execute what the coach wants me to execute. That’s it. It’s really simple.”

Having Barnes or Artest gives Phil Jackson options. But as the season wears on and heads to the playoffs, he will need last season’s Artest if the Lakers are to climb the summit again.

LeBron James: “We could easily get bounced early in the playoffs”

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Cleveland’s defense was pathetic Saturday and the Thunder routed them because of it. The Cavaliers gave up 148 points, allowed the Thunder to shoot 58 percent, and basically were little more than traffic cones for Russell Westbrook, Paul George and the rest of the Thunder to dribble and pass around. The Cavaliers have lost 8-of-11 and coach Tyronn Lue’s seat is getting warm.

Can the Cavaliers even get out of the East? LeBron James wasn’t even asking that question after the Saturday loss, he wants his team to get to the conference finals first. Via Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“Playoffs? We can’t even start thinking about that, not the way we’re playing right now,” James said. “We could easily get bounced early in the playoffs if they started next weekend. Haven’t even began thinking about the postseason.”

It’s January, it’s far too early to write LeBron and the Cavaliers off — his teams have won the East for seven straight seasons in a row for a reason. Cleveland’s mid-season malaise is a thing and they snap out of it, Isaiah Thomas will find his legs and play better, but this season has shown some troubling structural flaws in the Cavaliers. Ones that could bite them in the playoffs. Ones they are active in the trade market trying to address, or at least shore up a little.

Nobody around the league is comfortable picking against a LeBron team in the East — he has been to seven straight Finals for a reason (and how impressive an achievement that is gets overlooked). But this seems to be the weakest LeBron team since he bolted Cleveland (the first time?), and a second-round matchup vs. Toronto is no gimme anymore. LeBron is right to be concerned.

Former LSU star, Trail Blazer Tim Quarterman arrested after leading police on high-speed chase

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If you missed Tim Quarterman’s cup of coffee in the NBA nobody can blame you. The 6’6″ point guard was a star at LSU who went undrafted but got a chance to earn a roster spot in Portland. He bounced between the NBA and D-League last season playing in 16 games for the Trail Blazers, but then this summer was traded to Houston for cash, and the Rockets quickly waived him. He had signed to play in China but never got there due to visa issues, he did not play a game there.

Now he has some big trouble stateside. From Tupelo, Miss., television station WTVA (hat tip to the Times-Picayune):

Master Sgt. Ray Hall with the Mississippi Highway Patrol says the incident began sometime near 10:50 p.m. when troopers attempted to stop a 2018 Dodge Ram pickup truck for traveling eastbound on Highway 278 at a high rate of speed.

Quarterman failed to stop and led officers on the pursuit… The Mississippi Highway Patrol says the pursuit ended near (a family’s) home when Quarterman intentionally rammed a Pontotoc police officer causing both vehicles to crash.

Both Quarterman and the police officer were taken to a local hospital with minor injuries.

This led to charges of aggravated assault and felony fleeing, according to the report.

 

Rockets’ Clint Capela on Warriors: “We are better than them”

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Houston’s home win Saturday night against Golden State was much more important for the Rockets than the Warriors. Not in terms of the standings (Golden State is still 3.5 games up there), but about confidence — the Rockets needed to know they can beat the defending NBA champions. This game fueled their belief that they have a shot against the Warriors.

Houston big man Clint Capela was trying to say that… then took it a step too far.

Via Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

“We’re confident because we know if we’re doing what we’re supposed to do, we’re going to beat them,” Rockets center Clint Capela told ESPN. “We’ve got to keep playing. We know that they’re going to come back if we have the lead, and we’ve just got to keep that mindset. Sometimes I feel like, in the past, we were all dragging down after mistakes. But today, we were ready. I think that if we’re doing what we’re supposed to do on defense — all the switches, the weak side — and keep playing our offense by keeping that mentality all game long, we have the weapons to beat them.

“We are better than them.”

It goes without saying that January games are poor predictors of May playoff series. That said, I have two quick thoughts here:

• The Rockets are the team best built to have a legitimate shot at beating the Warriors. (They can score with Golden State, and they have good switchable defenders on the wing, the two things needed to have a chance.)

• I want guys to say this. I want teams going up against the Warriors to believe — that is the first step to actually doing it. You think the Cavaliers feel confident like this right now? The Rockets have the swagger and are over the intimidation factor, that’s step one.

Chris Paul scores 33, Rockets topple Warriors 116-108

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HOUSTON (AP) — James Harden felt closer to normal after struggling in his first game back from a hamstring injury, and the Houston Rockets got a big game from Chris Paul to down the Golden State Warriors on Saturday night.

Paul scored 33 points with 11 rebounds, Harden bested Stephen Curry twice in the final seconds and the Rockets held off the Warriors 116-108 to snap their 14-game road winning streak.

The victory gives Houston a 2-1 series advantage over Golden State after the reigning NBA champions had won the series the previous three seasons.

“Obviously they’re a championship caliber team for the past four years … and that’s what we’re trying to build our way up to,” Harden said.

Harden stepped back from Curry for a 3-pointer as the shot clock expired to make it 114-108 with 1:10 left, then blocked Curry’s 3-point attempt after a timeout.

Harden finished with 22 points. Paul added two free throws with 28 seconds left.

Golden State lost away from home for the first time since Nov. 22. The Warriors had won seven straight in Houston.

“It’s been a good streak, disappointing end to it,” coach Steve Kerr said. “But we didn’t deserve to win tonight. We played pretty poorly, did a lot of things to hurt ourselves and we’re playing a great team. Can’t get away with it.”

Houston coach Mike D’Antoni raved about the performance of the 32-year-old Paul .

“The guy is a winner, he’s been a winner, he’s going to win,” D’Antoni said.

Kevin Durant led Golden State with 26 points, Draymond Green had 21 and Curry added 19 on a night he went 5 of 15 on 3-point attempts and 6 of 20 overall. It was just the sixth time in his career that he’d attempted 20 or more shots while making six or fewer.

“It was just one of those nights where I personally didn’t have the right vision on the floor,” he said. “So I’ve got to take that responsibility for that one. It was pretty bad.”

The Warriors were wrapping up a five-game road trip and had won the first four games to tie a franchise record for consecutive road wins. But they struggled from the outset Saturday and trailed by double digits for most of the first half.

It was Harden’s second game back after missing seven with a strained hamstring. He was in a much better rhythm than in his return Thursday night, when he scored a season-low 10 points. He had eight assists, two steals and two blocks Saturday.

The Rockets got the victory despite missing Trevor Ariza and Gerald Green, who were both serving the second game of a two-game suspension for an altercation with the Clippers. Clint Capela added 18 points for Houston on a night when top reserve Eric Gordon went 0 for 9 from 3-point range and finished with just six points.

Golden State led by four before Houston went on a 9-2 run, with the first five points from Paul, to take a 109-106 lead with about three minutes left.