By Arash Markazi
November 16, 2009

LOS ANGELES -- Trevor Ariza didn't exactly know his way around the visitors' locker room at Staples Center as he returned to his old home Sunday night for the first time since signing with the Rockets in the offseason.

"Is this the back way?" Ariza said, opening a side door and looking around. "I need to get my peanut butter and jelly sandwich."

Not too long ago, Ariza's traditional pregame meal would be waiting for him in a plush Lakers players' lounge that included leather couches and flat-screen televisions. Now, as a visitor, his last name and number were scribbled on a piece of athletic tape above his cramped quarters.

"This is definitely different," said Ariza, who spent his first three and a half seasons with the Knicks and Magic before being traded to the Lakers two years ago. "I've been here before as a visitor, but this is definitely a different feeling."

As different as Ariza may have felt, it was as if he had never left the Lakers when he walked to midcourt before the game. As Ariza, holding his 19-month-old son, Tajh, picked up his championship ring from Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher, he received a standing ovation from Lakers fans who had chanted his name throughout the playoffs last season.

In Ariza's perfect world, he would have collected his jewelry as a Laker on opening night along with the rest of his former teammates. But his Hollywood script had a surprising rewrite over the summer.

After Ariza's strong playoff performance, his agent, David Lee, balked at the Lakers' initial offer of the mid-level exception (a five-year, $33.5 million deal) for the 24-year-old free agent. Sensing that they could be in for a lengthy negotiation (see: Lamar Odom's month-long ordeal) and might lose him without having a viable replacement, the Lakers turned around and essentially offered Ariza's deal to Ron Artest, who quickly accepted it two days into the free-agent period. About a day later, Ariza agreed to the same mid-level deal with the Rockets and basically traded places with the mercurial forward.

"It sucked," said Ariza, who grew up in Los Angeles, attending Westchester High School and UCLA. "There was stuff that I couldn't control. Once it happened, I was upset for a few days, but after that, I got over it. I know now that it was good for me. I'm able to expand my game and grow as a player in Houston."

Ariza is the focal point of a team for the first time in his career. He has proved to be up to the challenge, averaging 18.4 points, 5.1 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 2.1 steals during Houston's surprising 6-4 start.

"He's had his [good] moments and we see a real future for him," Rockets coach Rick Adelman said. "When Ron came to [the Lakers] and we got Trevor, for the long term with our young group, Trevor is a better fit."

Now, whenever the Rockets and Lakers meet, the spotlight is on Artest and Ariza. So far, it's been justifiable. In their first matchup, a 103-102 overtime victory for the Lakers in Houston two weeks ago, they were hit with double technical fouls early and traded three-pointers late. The highlight of their most recent confrontation, a 101-91 win for the Rockets on Sunday, came less than three minutes into the game. After Ariza lost his shoe going for a lose ball, Artest grabbed it and tossed it out of bounds as Ariza bent down to pick it up.

"I don't know what he was doing," said Ariza, who struggled through a 2-for-12, nine-point performance in his emotional return to L.A. "I wasn't happy at the time. After we were up in the fourth quarter, I asked him about it and he was like, 'Man, I was trying to catch my breath.' "

Asked about the incident, Artest said, "I just thought it would buy us some time so I threw it off the court."

Before Artest could answer any more questions, Kobe Bryant stopped him.

"Hey, hey, hey, get out of here with those questions, man," Bryant told a reporter. "Get out of here, man. Ask me those silly questions."

What did Bryant think of the play?

"Didn't see it," he responded. "Don't know what you're talking about."

Bryant may have been trying to save Artest from saying something he might regret, as Artest did the last time he played the Rockets. That's when Artest said he thought about choking Ariza, who had elbowed him, but restrained himself after considering the potential punishment from commissioner David Stern.

It's understandable for Artest to be slightly annoyed with Ariza. Artest is the new employee trying to adjust to his environment while continuing to hear how great the old employee was.

"I guess we're going to be attached at the hip forever now," Ariza said. "I didn't really know him that well before. When I'd see him, I'd say what's up, but we're attached now."

As much as their careers may be intertwined, for now Ariza has something that Artest doesn't -- a championship ring.

"I'm going to try it on now," Ariza said after the game as he opened the box and slipped on the ring for the first time, his picture etched on the side of it. "I'm looking at myself right now. That's crazy."

With the ring on his finger and a victory against his old team in hand, the visitors' locker room was beginning to feel a little more like home now.

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