NEW ORLEANS – Trevor Ariza was in an unusual situation when he returned to New Orleans nearly 18 months after he was traded to the Wizards.
The Hornets traded Ariza to Washington for salary cap relief in June 2012 but the franchise has since become the Pelicans, swapping in the teal and purple for navy, red and gold. Coach Monty Williams remains but only three players are left from the last time Ariza called New Orleans Arena home. But to Ariza, it was “the same team.”
And when the Wizards tipped off on Wednesday against the Pelicans, Ariza found himself matchup with Al-Farouq Aminu – the player who nudged him out of Williams’ starting lineup and eventually out of the organization after New Orleans landed the No. 1 pick in the draft lottery and determined that it was time to rebuild around Anthony Davis.
But Ariza didn’t necessarily have revenge on his mind when he led the Wizards to a 102-96 victory by scoring a team-high 21 points, grabbing 10 rebounds and knocking down the most important shot of a game that had become too close for comfort for the Wizards.
The calendar year had gotten off to a miserable start as he entered the contest averaging just 5.5 points and 3.3 rebounds in his previous four games. During that stretch, Ariza was also ejected for the third time in his career in a loss to Toronto.
“He knew he was in a slump. We knew he wasn’t himself defensively and doing the other things to help us, rebounding,” John Wall said of Ariza. “When Trevor’s getting double doubles or close to double doubles, doing those things, that’s big for our team.”
Ariza came out determined to break out of his funk and made his first shot, allowing him to settle into a game that had to be emotional, no matter how much he played down its significance.
From there, Ariza crashed the glass, catching a Martell Webster airball and tossing it in over his head for a reverse putback layup. And he refused to settle only for jumpers, driving inside in the third period, rebounding his own miss, and getting fouled as he hit a bank shot to put the Wizards up 20 points. Ariza also held Aminu to just four points and helped limit Tyreke Evans to just three points on 0-for-5 shooting.
“Love it, love it, love it,” Coach Randy Wittman said, when asked about what he thought about seeing a more productive Ariza.
When he was forced to miss the Wizards’ lone visit to New Orleans last season with a strained left hamstring, Ariza joked that it wasn’t really a big deal going up against his former team.
“I have a lot of former teams,” Ariza said at the time, with a laugh and a shrug. After all, Ariza has also played for New York, Orlando, the Los Angeles Lakers and Houston in his nine seasons.
Ariza only had four points on 2 of 10 shooting in his lone game against the Hornets last season, a 96-87 win. But he had a win and a big individual performance in a place that he says was good to him.
“It has to be something more spiritual than anything. It’s a place you used to play, it used to be your home, came here, performed,” Martell Webster said. “I guess, subconsciously there is something there. Some part of you wants to play good here. But as far as the mentality, ‘Oh, this is where I used to play, I have to play good here, that’s never in the front of your mind, ever.”
After the Wizards’ 23-point lead got chopped down to six with less than three minutes remaining, Ariza caught a pass from Nene in the right corner, directly in front of the Pelicans’ bench. He hit a three-pointer halted a furious fourth-quarter run by the Pelicans and helped the Wizards avoid what would’ve been an embarrassing loss.
“It shows how much we have grown, because I remember earlier in the year, we was up 10 with two minutes to go and we lost,” Ariza said, referencing the Wizards’ overtime loss to Oklahoma City. “So it’s big for our team. It’s big for our confidence and my confidence in myself.”
But Ariza refused to declare it the biggest shot of his tenure in Washington.
“We’re in the regular season,” Ariza said. “We haven’t got to the big time yet.”
But the Wizards know that they will need some quality performances from Ariza if they expect to hit the big time.
“That’s a true professional right there. He comes in every road trip, if we get in the day before the game, he always comes in and gets workouts in,” Wall said. “He came back here, making shots and rebounding the ball and he made a lot of key plays for us. That’s the Trevor Ariza we need to be a successful team.”