Ron Artest in launch mode for Rockets

Be careful what you wish for, the series.

Rarely have two playoff teams been as happy to see each other as the Lakers and Rockets.

The Lakers wanted to play the Rockets, whom they have handled, rather than the Trail Blazers, who have handled them, and with whom the series would have been a holy war.

The Rockets, who just got out of the first round for the first time in 12 years, are happy to be anywhere, even with a gargoyle, not a pot of gold, at the end of this rainbow.

Last week, with Rockets fans celebrating the Game 6 victory over the Trail Blazers, Ron Artest grabbed a microphone and told them to chill.

“I’m not happy just getting out of the first round,” he said later.


“That’s not L.A.'s goal, that’s not Boston’s goal, that’s not Cleveland’s goal and it’s not our goal.”

It was still a long time coming for the Rockets, in what was starting to look like the Endless Comeback.

For a team named for the Johnson Space Center, it was more like NASA’s early days when, as “The Right Stuff” author Tom Wolfe wrote, “Our rockets always blow up.”

Of course, no one ever had to live up to a two-year run like their Impossible Dream titles, winning in 1994 after losing the first two games at home to Phoenix in the second round when they blew a 20-point fourth-quarter lead in Game 2 and the Houston Chronicle ran its “Choke City” headline . . . and 1995 after finishing No. 6 in the West, going an unprecedented 5-0 in elimination games in two postseasons, as Coach Rudy Tomjanovich proclaimed, “Never underestimate the heart of a champion.”

Making it all the more memorable while their exploits were the stuff of legend, their front office was the stuff of vaudeville, with a new owner, Les Alexander, who had an itchy trigger finger.

Arriving just in time to see his new team win in 1994, Alexander fired the beloved broadcaster, Calvin Murphy, their mascot, Turbo, and their entire public relations staff before the parade floats had come to a complete stop.

Booed thunderously at the ring ceremony that fall, Alexander brought back Murphy.

Turbo got the first news conference a mascot ever held in costume on the floor, announcing his return.

With his wife, a high-ranking PETA official, Alexander had the cheerleaders don “Animals have rights too” T-shirts, tried to get the concessionaires not to sell hamburgers, and served the press tuna salad, rather than meat.

Finding public opinion still negative, Attila, er, Alexander then fired his second publicist that summer, after they won their second title.

Perhaps mellowing, Alexander hasn’t offed a single local icon lately . . . or, at least since 2003 when Tomjanovich, who had lasted until then and jumped from 28-54 to 43-39 in Yao Ming’s rookie season, got the ax.

The basketball operation, still run adeptly by Tomjanovich’s old assistant, Carroll Dawson, and now by Daryl Morey, brought in Tracy McGrady in 2004, seeming to herald a new age.

Instead, they just foundered at a higher level, winning 50-plus games in four of the last five seasons . . . in the West, where lots of teams won 50 . . . with injury-prone stars.

Artest arrived this season, but McGrady kept shutting himself down, finally opting for surgery in February, which, at least, ended his running argument with Artest in the press and got McGrady out of Dodge in one piece.

Nevertheless, they had become rock-ribbed defenders under Jeff Van Gundy, the winningest NBA coach ever fired after going 52-30, and are still rock-ribbed defenders under Rick Adelman.

Given what they’ve done, Van Gundy and Adelman could have been in the top five in coach-of-the-year voting four of the last five years. Instead, one is gone and the other is still trying to push the boulder up the hill.

Without McGrady, Adelman concedes they’re a “one-dimensional team with Yao,” and “other people in spots they haven’t been in and are not ready to be yet.”

Meet Artest, point forward, whether they want him to be one or not, no longer leaving chaos in his wake, but still no one you’d confuse with anybody else.

With opponents loading up on Yao, they’re Ronnie’s Team, so this isn’t a postseason, it’s an adventure.

Last week Artest called Brandon Roy the game’s best player. Asked about Kobe Bryant, Artest said Bryant only started defending in recent seasons.

“You know Brandon Roy is the first player I’ve played in the NBA to give me 40,” Artest said.

“I was amazed. I went, ‘Wow, this guy gave me 40 points! He has totally no respect for me!’ ”

This just in: The odds on Bryant averaging 40 this series just dropped dramatically.

Meanwhile, Artest, averaging 13 points and shooting 38% -- about what you’d expect with his shot selection -- was torched in the Houston press until getting 27 in their Game 6 romp when he took a ceremonial dive into the stands with 1:30 left.

“I’ve been in the stands before,” a laughing Artest said afterward, breaking up the interview room.

Fortunately, unlike Auburn Hills where he started a melee, he was at home, and a fan offered him a beer, instead of throwing one at him.

“When he did that, I was like, ‘You know what? I’m gonna sit down and enjoy this,’ ” Artest said. “I was gonna take a sip, but it’s too many cameras.”

Not that Artest would ever repeat his Auburn Hills antics . . . I don’t think. But just in case you encounter him in the stands, don’t make any sudden moves if you want to be assured of seeing the rest of the series, or your life.

One way or another, everyone will know Artest is in town, with a whole team just as tough, if not as zany.

Whether this turns out the way the Lakers planned, they know where they’re going the next two weeks.

They’re going to Ronnie World!