SACRAMENTO -- Ron Artest was there even though he wasn't there.
His teammates walked off the Arco Arena floor Friday night, having fallen to Minnesota in the Kings' seventh loss in eight games and yet another humbling defeat to a bottom-feeder team, and Artest walked off the floor with them.
He wore a suit jacket and jeans because he said a sore foot wouldn't allow him to play for the second consecutive game. He put his arm around Mikki Moore as the depth of the latest loss hit his teammates.
For them, for him, the disappointment is real now, with 20 games left and elimination from the playoff race not far off. The Kings are 11½ games out of the eighth spot in the Western Conference. And the desire, as they have shown lately, is clearly waning.
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With halfhearted efforts during games and halfhearted tones afterward, they endorse the youth movement that will become a bigger priority down the stretch while realizing that a collapse in the next month isn't desirable, either.
And Artest, whose absence the past two games has left many questioning his injury, finally spoke as if the end he feared is near.
"It's been tough for me, I'll tell you that," said Artest, who reflected on the season for approximately 10 minutes after Saturday's practice and said he likely would play tonight against the Lakers in Los Angeles.
"It's very tough, knowing you have the pieces to compete for a championship. It's very tough being in this situation right here."
Kings center Brad Miller, who has scored seven points combined in the past two games (none Friday) after playing consistently all season, said the mental and physical toll is being felt throughout the locker room.
"We'll try to finish it out, try to develop guys and be more competitive," he said. "We still have goals we're trying to meet. I'm very banged up, and not as bad as last year (with a foot injury). But everybody's banged up at this point."
Artest said he chose not to play in the past two games partly because the Kings were facing weak opponents and it would make for an opportune time to rest his "sore foot and leg." But when asked about his injury being questioned within the organization and in the media, the renowned defensive player went on the defensive.
"After everything I've been through this season, after playing when my daughter was in the hospital, not missing a game -- missing maybe one game -- playing the same day she had surgery, coming back early after elbow surgery when everybody told me I should come back after a month or month and a half, and I came back early to get in the playoffs, I think that shows dedication," Artest said. "That shows commitment. So for anybody to forget that, they have different agendas, and that means they didn't like me from the beginning. Don't be on my side. Stay against me, and the people that's with me, stay with me.
"I'd rather get all those people out now, and I want them to stay like that. So when we start winning, don't come on the bandwagon, all right? Don't come say, 'Hey, Ron, I love you.' No."
As obvious enemies go, Kobe Bryant and the Lakers, who beat the Kings on Tuesday at Arco Arena, will look to win for the 17th time in 19 games.