The Los Angeles Lakers are entering the 2010 NBA postseason with concerns about their consistency, desire, point guard play, and their reserves, but forward Ron Artest has provided a temporary reprieve with his play in recent weeks.
Artest has quietly began to round into the type of defensive presence the Lakers envisioned when they acquired him from the Houston Rockets, but his performance has been overshadowed by the team's recent struggles.
Los Angeles will earn the Western Conference's number one seed. However, unlike last year, the Lakers seem to be entering the postseason with a whimper instead of the bang expected of the defending NBA champions.
Some blame the inability of Derek Fisher to defend any other point guard, or the lack of production from the bench, but it's telling that former trouble-maker Artest has been a picture of stability amongst all the current upheaval.
Instead of imploding and falling victim to the circumstances around him, Artest has been a model of discipline and has tried to let the majority of his presence be felt on the court rather than the microphone of an interviewer.
Artest even went as far as to discard the weird hair color and strange script in his head in favor of a more traditional haircut, which draws focus away from his eccentricity and instead places it on the merits of his game.
Surprisingly, Artest has been the most steady and productive member of the Lakers' team recently, which may have a lot to do with him maturing and recognizing the opportunity at hand.
Artest desperately wants to win a NBA championship and he understands the window for accomplishing that is small, so he is seizing the moment with his superior defensive play in hopes of attaining that goal.
Make no mistake, Artest will play a major role if the Lakers hope to return to their championship glory of 2009, and his ability to defend the opposition's best player may determine the Lakers' fate.
In order for the Lakers to advance in the postseason, Artest will have to provide adequate defense against players like Carmelo Anthony, Manu Ginobili and — if Los Angeles reach the Finals — possibly LeBron James, Vince Carter, or Paul Pierce.
It's nice when Artest can provide scoring punch as well, but his primary task will be to prevent any of the above-mentioned players from exploding against the Lakers, and the team has plenty of scoring alternatives like Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol.
It's not even necessary for Artest to completely shut down any of these players, just provide enough resistance so their performances will not be the determining factor in a win or loss.
Many observers doubt Artest has the quickness or strength to stop a player like James if the Lakers should reach the Finals, but he doesn't have to stop him, just slow him down, and place responsibility on his teammates.
At 6'9," Artest has the size to play physical defense against opponents, and he does have the lateral movement to defend on the perimeter as well, but he must maintain the same level of focus.
In the postseason, the game slows down and a premium is placed on the ability to play suffocating man-to-man defense for the duration of the 24-second shot clock.
These are just the types of situations that Artest prides himself in, and he will definitely get a chance to prove he is still one of the most feared defenders in the NBA.
Although Los Angeles won the title in 2009 there was still a perception the Lakers lacked a physical edge to their team, and Artest stands as a testament to improvement in that area.
Artest's sole purpose is to be a defensive deterrent for the Lakers in the postseason, and if he is able to accomplish that goal, a championship in 2010 is a definite possibility.