PHILADELPHIA – In order to have the best scoring night of his career, Trevor Ariza had to first overcome the chills and an unusual case of nerves.
The chills were the result of the Wizards playing the Philadelphia 76ers a few hours after an NHL game between the Flyers and New York Rangers. That left Wells Fargo Center so cold Ariza cut short his pregame warmups and fled to the locker room after getting tired of repeatedly blowing into his hands and rubbing his arms.
The nerves were odd for a player who has been to the NBA Finals and won a championship ring with the Los Angeles Lakers. But Ariza couldn’t avoid being moved on a night in which Allen Iverson had his jersey retired and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver was joined by legends such as Julius Erving, Moses Malone, Gary Payton and Dikembe Mutombo to congratulate the former Georgetown star.
“A lot of greatness,” Ariza said of the reason for his butterflies. “It’s weird. It wasn’t like I was being honored.”
Once the game started, however, Ariza simultaneously got hot and stayed calm, sending him on the way to a night that he isn’t likely to forget. He made all six of his three-point attempts and scored 24 point during a blistering first quarter, and finished with a career-high 40 points to lead the Wizards to their sixth straight win, a 122-103 victory over the 76ers.
“It was cold early but the fans and the excitement and all the things that was going on here made the gym a little bit warmer,” said Ariza, whose previous career high was 33 points, set on Oct. 31, 2009, in Houston. “I got a lot of open looks early. I got a rhythm in the game. I got some good looks. My teammates was looking for me, telling me to be aggressive and that’s what I was doing.”
Ariza made his first eight three-pointers before missing his final four, but that doesn’t diminish the roll he’s been on of late. In his past four games, Ariza has connected on 18 of 28 three-point shots (64.3 percent) and has had two stretches in which he made eight straight three-pointers. He made his last three-pointer in a win over Cleveland, was 5 for 5 against Orlando and then made his first two three-pointers in Toronto.
For the season, Ariza ranks 13th in the NBA in three-point shooting percentage at 42.2 percent, which leads the team and is also a career high. Among the 17 players with at least 320 attempts, Ariza is the second-most accurate, trailing only Jose Calderon of Dallas. He ranks sixth with 2.51 three-point baskets per game. Despite his proficiency, Ariza said he has no plans of someday competing in the NBA three-point contest, leaving that up to this year’s runner-up in New Orleans, Bradley Beal.
“That’s Brad’s thing. He’s got a flamethrower, too,” Ariza said of Beal, who is shooting 41.3 percent from three-point range.
That term wouldn’t have been used to describe Ariza’s three-point shooting during his first four NBA seasons, with New York, Orlando and the Lakers. Ariza attempted 53 three-pointers, making just eight, in his first 229 career games. He has two games this season in which he has made at least eight, including a career-high 10 on Feb. 12 in a controversial loss in Houston.
Ariza said his transformation into a reliable shooter came after breaking his right foot in practice shortly after arriving with his hometown Lakers in 2008. He had relied mostly on athleticism early in his career, but with his foot confined by a cast, Ariza was forced to focus on his shooting form.
“I had nothing but time. I was frustratred. I wanted to do everything I could to help because we had a really good team,” said Ariza, who was not available when the Lakers lost to the Celtics in the NBA Finals. “So every day, with my cast on, I’d be in the gym just shooting for hours. Real hours. I just started getting confidence. Once the boot came off, I spent a lot of time in the gym shooting.”
It didn’t pay off immediately. Ariza made roughly a third of his attempts from three-point range until he shot a then-career-best 36.4 percent last season. With John Wall forcing defenses to collapse, Ariza can rush to the corners, hold out his hands and expect a pass that will allow him to release in rhythm.
The timing of his breakout season from long distance couldn’t have been better since Ariza will be a free agent this summer. He is averaging 14.8 points and a career-high 6.4 rebounds, bouncing back from a somewhat disappointing first season in Washington last season, in which he averaged just 9.5 points and lost his starting small forward job to Martell Webster.
“Trevor’s been playing huge for us all year,” veteran Al Harrington said. “I told him he’s probably the most underrated player on our team, the guy that has been one of the most consistent guys but gets no credit for it.”
On Saturday, Ariza became the first player in franchise history to have two quarters in which he made at least six three-pointers without a miss in one season. Ariza was 7 for 7 from beyond the arc in the third quarter in Houston. J.R. Smith was the last player to have two quarters with at least six three points in the season, in 2007-08.
Wall matched his career-high with 16 assists against the 76ers and Marcin Gortat recorded his seventh straight double-double with 13 points and 14 rebounds, but they only wanted to discuss Ariza after the Wizards won their third straight game without Nene.
“That was only a one-man show: It was Trevor. He was outstanding. My rebounds and John’s assists, I don’t think they count,” Gortat said with a laugh.
Ariza said after the game that the performance was “100 percent” inspired by being in the arena with Iverson, a player he admired but couldn’t exactly pattern his game after. “He came in the league in ’96? I was like 11 or something. Growing up I watched him, idolized him, but I was always taller. I couldn’t really do the things he did on the court. The retirement of his jersey was real dope. That’s dope to see in person. I’ve never seen anything like that before. That was probably one of the best moments of my career to be able to see that.”