HOUSTON 115, KINGS 98
We knew the Ron Artest return would be anticlimactic.
That much was clear when the schedule was set, if only because the trade that sent him to Houston went down in August and the Rockets' first regular season affair at Arco Arena was in early April. But this was elevated irrelevance, with the Rockets in the midst of a tight race for playoff position and the Kings counting the days until the end.
Meanwhile, the former King is in a fortuitous position after what was a messy ending in Sacramento. After having his hopes for a long-term future with the Kings dashed last summer, he has become the second-half hero of the Rockets' season after Tracy McGrady's season-ending left knee injury and microfracture surgery.
Since McGrady's last game on Feb. 9, Houston has won 20 of 27 games and Artest has led the charge. The timing of it all was impeccable, as McGrady and Artest had been sniping at each other in the locker room prior to McGrady's exit and the chemistry declining by the day. The new development, though, was that those I spoke to in Houston had said Artest was the one receiving support while McGrady's act was growing increasingly tired on that scene.
Now with Artest's long-anticipated free agency finally arriving this summer, he finds himself in good favor with his current team and playing well enough to entice other bidders in the Artest sweepstakes as well. He still won't come close to the maximum contract he had hoped for, of course, but he will be employed and well paid and pursued.
Asked about the Rockets' play since McGrady went down, Artest said the absence of the unhealthy McGrady has been key.
"We've been healthy," he said. "Everybody was healthy. Tracy wasn't healthy, and it hurt me, it hurt him, hurt the team. Everybody was looking forward to seeing the three-headed monster (of Artest, McGrady and Yao Ming) on the court, but he (McGrady) couldn't play hard. I felt bad for him."
As Artest pointed out, McGrady's summer of free agency is in 2010.
"Hopefully he gets better and comes back next year," Artest said. "He has a big year. He's trying to get a new contract, so hopefully he plays out of his mind."
Artest said he isn't letting himself look ahead too far because of what's at stake now.
"The future is tomorrow," he said. "That's it. Golden State (Houston's opponent on Friday). I can't go no further than that. That's the most important thing on my mind. I can't look ahead, because there's too much at stake right now. We're not where we want to be, which is No. 1."
ADDENDUMS FROM ARCO
* As it turns out, Will Solomon wasn't the difference maker.
He's gone, and the Kings are still losing. But as a delayed subplot to his waiving on Tuesday, it's safe to say he won't be missed. There were rumblings that Solomon had been significantly late to at least one shoot-a-round and generally impressed no one with his approach and presence. His random outing of selfishness against Atlanta on March 17 was merely a public revealing of the private sentiment that surrounded him. What's more, it also appears he had been plotting his next move for some time now.
On March 20, I was contacted by a reporter from Turkey who had heard Solomon had already agreed to terms with his former Turkish team, Fenerbahce Ülker. Sure enough, Solomon is reportedly rejoining the team with which he won two titles and was dubbed "King Solomon."
I had asked Solomon on the team's recent East Coast trip whether he was in discussions with any teams overseas, and he dodged any direct answer to the question while insisting he wanted to stay in the NBA. Pressed as to whether what I had been told was true about Fenerbahce Ülker, he said, "It depends on how much they're offering." Apparently it was enough.
I don't know all the details on how the departure went down, but it sounds as if the Kings - per their recent M.O. - saved yet another chunk of change (albeit a relatively small one) on the transaction by setting Solomon free.
* When Arco Arena became Staples North in the Kings' loss to the Lakers on Tuesday, I was watching at home during my recent daddy duty.
But I missed a postgame portion of the telecast that truly captured the real nature of the scene, one that had Kobe Bryant marveling at how many Lakers fans were on hand. While I'm sure the Maloofs appreciated the rare sellout and know full well that Lakers fans' money is no different than that of Kings fans, this surely qualifies as must-not-see TV for the Kings owners.
But heck, at least there was a postgame interview with an opposing player at all. There have been a handful of times this season when losses were so ugly that this postgame practice was bypassed. Gotta say I'm surprised that executive order wasn't exacted in this one.
* Just about the time the Kings need to lose - to secure their standing as the league's worst team and thus the highest chances at the No. 1 pick in June - they play the team that has taken part in 18.7 percent of their wins. For the non-numbers folks, that's three wins against the Clippers this season out of 16 Kings wins in all. LA's other team has lost six straight (as have the Kings) and nine of its last 10. - Sam Amick