Kevin Durant was bound to have a dud game after an incredible month in which he routinely shredded defenses and had two-time, reigning most valuable player LeBron James constantly checking the “KD” app on his phone for updates. But Trevor Ariza played a role in ensuring that Durant’s off-night came against the Wizards.
Durant arrived at Verizon Center on Saturday having shot better than 50 percent in his previous seven games, averaging 37.5 points over that stretch. Ariza, however, wasn’t daunted by having to guard the league’s leading scorer one night after Durant scored 26 points on 10 of 12 shots in Brooklyn.
Tasked as the man to slow down the front-runner for league MVP, Ariza has learned over his nine seasons in the league that he will occasionally get roasted by the game’s supreme offensive weapons. But sometimes, a little tenacity and aggressiveness can contribute to coming out ahead.
“You definitely can’t stop them,” Ariza said of guarding elite scorers. “What you can do is try to make them work for everything you get and make them take a lot of shots. That’s what I tried to do — try to put pressure on him, try to make him take tough shots and luckily he missed some.”
Durant scored 26 points again but shot just 8 of 21 in the Wizards’ 96-81 victory.
“That’s what Trev’s known to do,” Bradley Beal said. “He’s our best defender. We always put him on top guy on the other team. He always accepts that challenge and he accepted it. We held [Durant] under 30 and he did a great job contesting, staying down and playing his heart out.”
Ariza has had his moments on the defensive this season: He overcame a triple-digit fever to help coerce James into missing 10 of 18 shots in a victory over the Miami Heat and forced Stephen Curry into missing a terrible, left-handed three-pointer at the end of an 88-85 win over Golden State. He has also had nights in which he simply had to salute a red-hot shooter: Jeff Green had a season-high 39 points last month, Carmelo Anthony dropped 32 points on the Wizards in December and Durant scored 33 points, including a sick, straight-away three-pointer to force overtime when the teams met in November.
“I get the job of guarding the ‘tough guy’ every night so I just try to bring the same energy every night with whoever it is that I’m facing,” Ariza said. “Whether it be Durant, LeBron, Carmelo or Kobe [Bryant], whoever it is, I just try to make them work for whatever they get.”
As the Wizards’ top perimeter defender, the long-armed and wiry Ariza has survived by maintaining a short memory. He didn’t remember Durant’s shot from the first meeting and he also forgot about the sequence on Saturday when he blocked a Durant jumper and drew a charge on the next play. His effort against Durant didn’t go unnoticed by his coaches and teammates.
“As you saw, it was like a mirror,” Coach Randy Wittman said. “Whenever Durant was on the floor Trevor was on the floor, so he busted his tail. Really great effort, there wasn’t any let up in his intensity in that job that he had to do.
“The guy is good,” Wittman said of Durant. “He’s going to be ranked up there, if not MVP, in the talk of it and we know he’s going to get points. Like we said before the game, we wanted to make them tough, we wanted to make him get shot attempts up, so he had 21 attempts to get 26 points and we couldn’t let anybody else come in and really hurt us with a big game.”
Ariza was aided by the back line of Nene and Marcin Gortat, who protected the basket and helped hold the Thunder to just 38 points in the paint. Slowing Durant was no simple task and Nene was relieved that the Wizards didn’t let him go off again.
“He’s an amazing player. He been balling, making all kind of crazy shot,” Nene said, shaking his head. “That dude is very skilled. He has a long body, skinny but explosive. And he’s strong for that kind of body – and the referees allow him to carry the ball, but that’s okay.”
Durant has solved most of the defenses he’s seen, but he didn’t use any excuses after the game.
“They did a good job defensively,” Durant said of the Wizards. “They got into passing lanes. They made it tough. They made me see a crowd. It was a few shots I should’ve hit. I got some good looks, but they did a good job. You’ve got to give them credit.”