Lakers show grit they'll need when they face NBA's elite
By Billy Witz
MEMPHIS, Tenn. --Ron Artest's nose was out of joint -- and that wasn't all.
After Artest had been hit inadvertently in the face by Marc Gasol, he immediately put his hands over his bloodied nose and mouth and sprinted to the far end of the court, where he kneeled down as officials whistled a foul on the Memphis Grizzlies center.
But as Artest, after being checked on by several teammates, headed back toward the Lakers' bench at the opposite end of the court, he had an enraged look on his face -- one that for Artest is as familiar as it is frightening.
Artest glared at Gasol, then when he reached the bench, he pushed Lakers trainer Gary Vitti away.
But Artest gathered himself, calmed down and kept his poise, much like the rest of the Lakers, who used one of their better defensive efforts of the season Monday to turn back Memphis, 93-84.
As the Lakers head to Boston for Thursday's rematch with the Celtics and look forward to a Sunday matinee in Orlando -- the two opponents they vanquished to win their back-to-back titles -- this was just the kind of gritty performance they will need if they are going to prove they can handle any of this season's title contenders.
"We have to make things tough for the opposition's strength," Kobe Bryant said. "A lot of times it's ugly basketball, but it's pretty in June."
It was that kind of game. The blow that Artest took was the third time he got hit in the face. Andrew Bynum also took two blows to the kisser early in the fourth quarter. Memphis' Rudy Gay had to be helped to the bench with a back injury in the fourth quarter, and Darrell Arthur had to leave the game with a bloodied nose.
The Lakers, who had lost their past two games to Memphis -- including a 104-85 blowout in Los Angeles last month -- made life particularly tough on Zach Randolph, the NBA's Player of the Month in January, who managed just eight points on 2 of 14 shooting. It was Randolph's lowest-scoring game since opening night, when he played just 15 minutes before leaving with a back injury.
"We were trying to get back in and shorten the lane for him so he didn't have as much room to operate," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. ". . . A couple times we were able to take the ball away or block shots -- that was important."
Also important was how the Lakers have clamped down in the fourth quarter of the two wins that have begun their seven-game trip. They allowed 13 points to New Orleans in the fourth quarter Saturday and 16 to Memphis on Monday.
"That's what a good team does," Jackson said. "They learn how to lock a team down and come out in the fourth quarter and play defense."
Though it was a physical, grinding game throughout, the tenor of the game took a turn late in the third quarter when Artest wrestled the ball away from Marc Gasol as he double-teamed him. Gasol, trying to get the ball back, belted Artest in the face.
As Artest was being treated, he also was being talked to by Pau Gasol -- Marc's brother -- and Bryant. By the time he headed back to the court to shoot free throws, Marc Gasol came to check on Artest, who acknowledged him with a bump of his forearm.
"I didn't want him to beat up Pau's brother," Bryant said.
Pau Gasol acknowledged that it could have been an awkward moment for him -- having to get between his brother and his teammate. But he praised Artest for keeping his cool.
"When I saw his nose, I saw he got hit pretty bad," Pau Gasol said. "I tried to stay close to Ron just to make sure everything was fine. Obviously he was upset that he got hit pretty good. That was the third time he got hit in the face tonight, and he didn't appreciate that very much. Obviously he's an emotional player."
Asked if he thought Artest was out of control, Jackson said, "Not any more than usual."
Though he rarely has let his emotions get out of control since coming to Los Angeles, it is that archetype that Artest is playing against -- Crazy Ron.