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Artest spreads defensive gospel in Indiana
by Les Morris / March 21, 2002

Ron Artest was acquired from the Bulls just prior to the NBA trade deadline. Since then, the Pacers' defense has tightened considerably. The team has climbed to eighth in the league in the important category of opponents' field goal percentage.

"He's been tough," Pacers' All-Star Jermaine O'Neal said of his new teammate. "We can throw him on anybody and just let him stay out there one-on-one with the guy and he'll defend. He takes it personal. When you have a guy that's playing defense personal, that's a really good player. I think he's the key to what we do."

Indiana coach Isiah Thomas says that since the deal, in which his team also picked up Brad Miller, Ron Mercer, and Kevin Ollie, "We're a better defensive team. Offensively, you're not going to be as smooth, you're going to hit some rough spots but on the defensive side of the ball, we've become really good. Artest on the perimeter is a stopper and he's done an excellent job of setting the tone defensively. And Brad is a good rebounder. So we solidified two holes on the defensive side of the ball. We gave up offense and got defense back."

Last week's victories were all keyed by defense. Against Golden State at home, Indiana let a 20-point advantage dwindle to four with slightly over five minutes to play. Three straight steals by Artest, Reggie Miller, and Jamaal Tinsley led to a 13-0 run and a 115-101 win. Until Jason Richardson hit a meaningless three-pointer with just seconds to play, the Warriors went five minutes without scoring a point.

"It's a great sign if you can for four to five minute stretches shut a team down and they can't score a basket, can't move the ball, every shot is challenged," Thomas said after the game. "That's what the good defensive teams do in this league. You're in the game, you're in the game, and then for about three to four minutes the lock you down and before you know it, the game is over. And you sit there and wonder what happened."

It happened again three nights later in Minneapolis as the Pacers used a defensive stand in the third quarter as the impetus for a 98-85 win over the faltering Timberwolves. Indiana outscored Minnesota 20-9 in the third quarter.

"I thought defensively we were outstanding, particularly in the third quarter," Thomas said. "We denied passes, we challenged shots, and we played with good intensity on defense. Our good night defensively led to offensive chances. It was a good win for us because it was on the road and our execution defensively was really good."

Sunday afternoon back at Conseco Fieldhouse, the Pacers entertained the Hawks. The Pacers completely shut down Atlanta, whipping them by an 85-68 count. The Hawks could muster only 36 percent shooting for the day. It was the seventh time in the last 12 games that an Indiana opponent shot less than 40 percent from the field.

Artest admits his calling card is defense. "That's what I try to focus my game on," he said after the Atlanta win. "I try to emphasize defense on the court, that I'm going to make a stop and then leave the offense for later. That's how I've been approaching things lately."

The 6-foot-7, 246-pound forward out of St. John's fits the Pacers very well. He grew up on the same Queens street (10th Street) as former Pacer star Vern Fleming. "Everybody always talked about him," Artest recalled. "He had a real good career."

Everybody is now talking about Artest and the defensive strength he has brought to the suddenly resurgent Pacers.

Les Morris covers the Pacers for the Shelbyville News and is a frequent contributor to HoopsHype.com

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