NBA Playoffs, Lakers v. Suns Game 2: Ron Artest still fighting the ghost of Trevor Ariza

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artest.pngAs long as Ron Artest remains a Laker, he will be compared to Trevor Ariza. The circumstances that allowed for the addition of Artest and Ariza’s departure just fit together too conveniently, and considering the similar spaces and roles they’ve occupied within the Laker offense.

Artest apparently isn’t too keen on the comparison. From Dave McMenamin of ESPN Los Angeles:

About a week ago Ron Artest lingered after practice with a small group of reporters, sitting down
on an exercise machine and talking about his progress this postseason,
when somebody mentioned it took Trevor Ariza about a full season to fully grasp the Lakers’ system, too. “You’re going to compare me to him?” Artest asked, pained by the name.

Ariza’s 2009 triumphs have become something of a tall tale; Trevor was a piece of a championship formula and did a lot of good things for the Lakers that season, but from the way fans and media members have pined for him at times this season is a bit absurd. Ariza wasn’t a larger than life superstar, he was a nice complementary player that hit some shots and played great perimeter defense.

Turns out those commodities are replaceable if you know where to look, and if your team has the luxury of luring Ron Artest for the mid-level exception. Still, even after three series’ of solid play, Ron is still trying to prove himself. He’s still trying to escape from Trevor Ariza’s strangely large shadow.

It won’t be enough for Artest to simply be a part of a title team. Ariza is so well-respected for his L.A. tenure because when the Lakers needed him, he produced. When he found the ball in his hands in the final minutes of big games, he didn’t hesitate. He didn’t just settle for playing good defense when the Lakers needed a crucial stop, he jumped the inbound pass and became the subject of playoff legends.

Reputations are a funny thing. Artest should have forged his by playing excellent defense on Kevin Durant in the first round, or by being part of the Laker team that so handily dismissed the Jazz in the second. Yet, despite of how valuable Artest has been in the postseason so far, he’ll have to prove himself as invaluable if he really wants to escape the Ariza comparisons.

A lot of that is dependent on circumstances, as Ariza was only allowed to succeed because Andrew Bynum was sidelined, Lamar Odom was invisible at times, and Pau Gasol/Kobe Bryant opened up shots for him. Artest is finally finding himself in similarly beneficial circumstances against the Suns, and he’s capitalizing.

When Bryant hits Artest in the corner out of a double team, Ron has to hit that shot or make a play. When Jason Richardson foolishly looks to break down Artest off the dribble, Ron has to step up and get a stop. Not necessarily because that’s the difference between a win or a loss in Game 2 (although it could have been, as Artest scored 18 and prevented plenty more by the Suns in a 12-point win), but because those plays will be essential in the future.

The Lakers have made it abundantly clear that although they’re respecting their opponents, even these games are not an end unto themselves. It’s important to perform against Phoenix, but the Western Conference Finals are a means to achieve the bigger goal. That’s where Artest will go from luxury to necessity. He may never reach Ariza’s ridiculous 47.6% mark from three in last year’s playoffs, but the farther the Lakers go in the playoffs, the more integral Artest becomes.