Artest hears wrath of fans in return to Indiana

INDIANAPOLIS -- Ron Artest now knows how Ben Wallace felt two Christmases ago and how John Starks was treated a decade earlier.

Those were the only comparisons longtime Pacers employees could fathom after
Artest returned to Indiana as the villain Friday night -- and the fans let him have it like they rarely do.

Jermaine O'Neal had predicted there wouldn't be more than a couple of boos, and this reporter predicted a dominant performance by the Kings. Boy, were we both wrong.

The hate began raining down on Artest during player introductions, and the boos kept coming strong every single time he touched the ball. Artest claimed it had no effect on him, but there was certainly something that got into his head as the Sacramento Kings blew an early 16-point lead and lost 98-93 to the Pacers in the most anticipated game in Naptown since the Pistons made their first visit following the infamous brawl of 2004.

"It's cool. That's what they're supposed to do. I'm a Sacramento King, and if you come to Arco Arena, you already know how it's going to be," said Artest, adding that he couldn't remember anyone being treated quite so harshly by the fans when he was playing for the Pacers.

When it began, the tenacity of the booing was the thing you really noticed. Indiana fans had never really had a chance to vent at the one particular person who caused so much of the past two seasons to turn so sour, and that fury was unleashed in one big, strong crescendo.

"It's definitely unfortunate that your own fans would boo you, and booing him because he came back?" asked Stephen Jackson, the only player from the Pacers to spend time with Artest on Friday afternoon in the hours before the game. "I'm happy to see him happy and in a situation where he wants to be. That's my guy, and I wish him the best. But the fans showed a sad side by booing him."

The fans actually booed the Pacers, too, when it appeared the game was getting away from then at the midpoint of the first quarter. Sacramento hit its first eight shots and was ahead 36-20 at the end of one quarter, but the fluidity they showed in the opening minutes began to disappear once Artest tried to take on a little too much of the load by himself.

Early in the second quarter, Artest found himself isolated at the 3-point line against Peja Stojakovic, the player he was traded for, and decided he was going to try to show him up. But Stojakovic's defense -- along with his rebounding -- is better than what the Pacers had been expecting, and Artest soon discovered the same thing. He was able to free himself for a jumper, but the shot missed everything -- an airball that delighted the partisan crowd.

That was the beginning of the end for Artest, who followed up a 4-for-8 first half by shooting an abysmal 2-for-14 in the second half as the Kings were outscored 57-41 and couldn't find a way to stop Indiana rookie Danny Granger, who scored 14 of his career-high 23 points in the final two quarters.

Artest finished with 18 points, five rebounds, two steals and two assists, while Stojakovic had 20 points and 12 rebounds.

"The first Laker game against Kobe he was too hyped up and tried to do too much, and even he admitted that," Kings coach Rick Adelman said before the game. "The second time he played Kobe he was much more at ease with what he could do, and hopefully he's going to do that tonight. But it's hard. There's so much going on here, so much emotion here, it's going to be hard for him."

Artest has helped the Kings turn around what had been a disappointing season, his energy at both ends of the court rubbing off on his new teammates and his production helping the Kings come into this game with eight wins in their last nine games -- a run of success that vaulted them into the thick of the Western Conference playoff race.

The Pacers had not been experiencing a similar level of success, but their problems could be traced in large part to the thigh injury that knocked Jermaine O'Neal out of their lineup in late January.

Indiana looked positively dreadful in the early minutes of this one, but Artest assumed that role all by himself after halftime as the game evolved in a grind-it-out halfcourt battle that favored the Pacers.

But the clincher for Indiana, strangely enough, came via the fast break.

Although they ran a little bit more in the first few games after Stojakovic arrived, the Pacers soon settled back into coach Rick Carlisle's preferred slowdown style. But with the score 91-88, Artest missed a shot from inside and Indiana pushed it upcourt for a fast-break layup by Stojakovic that gave them a five-point lead. After two missed by the Kings on their next possession, the Pacers broke out again and got the ball to Jackson for a fast-break dunk that gave them a seven-point lead that basically ended it.

Artest exchanged a few hugs and hand slaps with his ex-teammates before leaving he floor uneventfully. In the locker room afterward, he clutched a blowup photo of himself in a Pacers uniform -- the same picture that formerly hung on the wall outside their practice court, its place having been taken six weeks ago but a shot of Stojakovic.

"It was probably a weird day for the team," Artest said. "I wasn't trying to prove a point, I just missed a lot of layups."

If it was because he was pressing or because he was being booed, Artest wouldn't admit it.

"If there was a fight between the people who loved me or booed me, I think the boos would have won."

Just like the Pacers did.

Chris Sheridan, a national NBA reporter for the past decade, covers the league for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.