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Updated: July 15, 2005, 9:12 PM ET Pacers forward in action for first time since Nov. 19
MINNEAPOLIS -- Shortly after Ron Artest knocked down his third jumper in four shots at the Minnesota summer league, one fan in the sparse crowd at Target Center leaped up to boldly proclaim, "Ron is back!"
Artest had 23 points, four steals and four rebounds in 35 minutes Friday.
It was easily heard in the near-empty arena, and the Indiana Pacers couldn't be happier.
The embattled forward returned to competitive action on Friday for the first time since being suspended for his role in the now infamous brawl with Detroit Pistons fans on Nov. 19.
Artest had 23 points on 8-of-15 shooting, four steals and four rebounds in 35 minutes of a 72-64 loss to Houston.
"It's been 73 games plus the playoffs, and finally to get back in front of some referees, that felt pretty good," Artest said.
Artest missed the final 73 games of the regular season and all of the playoffs for fighting with fans in a frightening scene at The Palace. After tussling with Ben Wallace, Artest bolted into the stands after a fan whom he thought hit him in the face with a cup.
The impending melee has been replayed endlessly on national television. Commissioner David Stern reacted swiftly and harshly, suspending Artest for the remainder of the season, Stephen Jackson for 30 games, and Jermaine O'Neal for 25, which was later reduced to 15.
Now, Artest is trying to put that all behind him, playing with a group of rookies, unproven veterans and free agent journeymen in front of a smattering of fans in the NBA's summer league.
"It's great to see him in a uniform," Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said. "It's been a long time. This is a significant step, him being here, being back with the team."
Even without Artest, Indiana gave the Pistons all they could handle, losing in six games in the Eastern Conference semifinals last season.
With one of the best all-around players in the league back on an already talented roster, there are high hopes that the Pacers can join Miami and Detroit among the Eastern Conference elite.
"I admire the kid," Pacers president Larry Bird said. "Not for what he did, but how he's come back and he's worked and he's done things to improve himself. I look for a great year out of him."
Physically, he looked like he never missed a game. His trademark sculpted physique was there, as was the intensity in his eyes and the tirelessness of his work ethic. But he labored a little bit midway through the first half, breathing heavily and wound up with five turnovers.
"Mentally I felt rusty because I haven't been out there in so long," Artest said. "I was thinking, 'Just take your time.' I was trying to approach it like a playoff game where you have to be poised."
Artest hit the first shot he took, a 3-pointer from the left elbow and scored 11 points in the first quarter.
He began to tire as the first half wore on, allowing an easy drive to the basket by Dion Glover, and forcing a few shots on the offensive end.
"I think he was a little nervous," said Pacers assistant Dan Burke, who is coaching the summer league team. "He was pressing a little bit. I sensed he was jittery. I can't blame him. Even though it's summer league, it's a big step for him."
But all in all, Artest looked similar to the player who won the defensive player of the year award in 2004, and just as mischievous.
During one Rockets possession in the second quarter, Artest leaped out to the corner to try and block a 3-point attempt by David Bluthenthal. Artest slapped Bluthenthal on the arm as he let the shot go and it swished through without a foul being called.
Artest flashed a devilish smile and headed back up court, clearly happy to be where he feels he belongs.
Afterward, he was hesitant to talk much about his punishment or that fateful night, instead focusing on the future.
"I'm not trying to think about happened," he said. "I just want to move on."
"I think I missed him more than he missed us," Bird joked.