One can learn only so much from a midseason game, but if there’s one thing we know for sure after the Heat choked out the Lakers, it’s that Ron Artest is no match for LeBron James. That may not seem like an outlandish statement, but there were many predicting that Artest’s ability to body up on James could play a major role on Christmas. After all, Artest has a history of tormenting the nearly unguardable Kevin Durant and Paul Pierce in last year’s playoffs with physical, consistent defense on and off the ball.
But unlike just about everyone else Artest defends (Carmelo Anthony is also a notable exception), LeBron is bigger and stronger than him, so “bodying up” isn’t really an option. RonRon, who usually relies on his phenomenal total body strength, fast hands and advanced feather-ruffling techniques to limit great scorers, simply can’t contain someone with James’ combination of power, speed, and open court game.
When he tried to body LeBron off the ball, James released effortlessly. When he tried to crowd LeBron on the catch, James dribbled past Artest like he wasn’t even there. When he put LeBron in a headlock, which inexplicably resulted in LeBron receiving a technical, James remained thoroughly unperturbed. And unlike Carmelo, Durant and Pierce, LeBron becomes a primary ball handler in transition, a situation Artest is uniquely ill-equipped to defend.
In reality, the primary consideration when choosing a defender for LeBron should be footspeed, instead of strength. Tony Allen, despite giving up a couple inches and 50 pounds, is probably the prototypical LeBron stopper.
But Artest’s complete inability to affect LeBron’s offensive game would not, in itself, be so detrimental to the Lakers if he at least contributed something on the offensive end. However his relative lack of understanding when it comes to the Lakers’ triple post offense and slow spot up shooting motion also took the pressure off of LeBron on defense.
This is the dream scenario for the Heat: Wade contesting Bryant’s every maneuver and LeBron liberated to disrupt the Lakers’ passing and cutting game. All of LeBron’s four steals came in the passing lanes, as he wandered the court, fearing retribution from neither Artest nor Barnes. The Heat’s prescient rotations limited the Lakers Small Forwards to three total three point attempts, and LeBron’s on ball defense was hardly taxed by their offensive games. Instead, he preserved his energy for making disruptive defensive plays off the ball and leading the Heat’s offensive attack.
Certainly the Lakers’ inability to control the game through Gasol and Odom as well as the stellar two-way performances by Wade and Bosh were more crucial to the final outcome than Artest’s struggles. But while one can imagine Pau playing far better than he did on Christmas, Artest’s irrelevance against LeBron must be viewed as tidings of things to come, should the two teams meet again in June.