Let’s not forget that Trevor Ariza once played for an NBA championship team. And he wasn’t one of those end-of-the-bench cheerleaders for the 2008-09 Los Angeles Lakers. Ariza earned his ring on the court.
Considering his history, Ariza seemed like an ideal candidate to provide an inspirational playoff performance for the Washington Wizards, who figured to need one with Nene suspended for Game 4 against the Chicago Bulls. As it turned out, Ariza was the right man for the job.
That was obvious Sunday afternoon as the lanky veteran forward delivered from start to finish in the Wizards’ 98-89 victory. Ariza scored a postseason-best 30 points, grabbed eight rebounds, was typically tenacious on defense and had no turnovers in almost 38 minutes. Ariza’s hot shooting (he made 6 of 10 three-pointers in the game) got the Wizards started along a path that ended with them holding a 3-1 lead in a best-of-seven Eastern Conference series. Game 5 is in Chicago on Tuesday.
The Wizards need one more victory to win their first playoff series in nine seasons. Although many people helped the Wizards reach this point, Ariza took the lead in getting them out of a jam.
After Nene initiated a scuffle with the Bulls’ Jimmy Butler and was ejected in Game 3 on Friday night, it was only a matter of time before the NBA announced his suspension. Sure enough, word emerged late Saturday afternoon that the talented big man had to sit out.
Fans and sports-talk radio hosts had the luxury of debating whether Nene let the Wizards down by failing to keep his cool (he did). Meanwhile, the Wizards had to focus on tinkering with their approach without a player who was vital to their wins in the series’ first two games at Chicago’s United Center.
The plan? Look to Ariza early and often.
The Wizards were several steps quicker than the Bulls to start the game. Ariza made a three-pointer to give the Wizards a 7-0 lead and another to cap a 14-0 run, prompting most in a sellout crowd at Verizon Center to make a whole lot of noise.
“Guys were making the extra pass,” John Wall said. “Trevor did a great job of getting himself going, making shots early on.”
Within the first four minutes, Bulls Coach Tom Thibodeau used two timeouts. The look of exasperation on Thibodeau’s face told the story: The Wizards and Ariza were on a roll.
“They came out with great intensity,” Thibodeau said. “To get in a hole like that to start a ballgame like this . . . very disappointing.”
Not for Ariza. He wanted to shoulder more responsibility. “Normally, those touches are for Nene early in the game, but we needed somebody to step up and be aggressive,” he said. “I took that role.”
The Wizards always prefer to play with Nene, whose spate of injuries since he was acquired from the Denver Nuggets has been a source of frustration at times in the organization. To Coach Randy Wittman’s credit, though, he has refused to use Nene’s absences as an excuse.
“We’re a smart enough group to understand that when one of your pieces goes down, you have to find ways and a will to win,” Ariza said. “[Today] was my [day] to take on the scoring load.”
His timing was outstanding.
In the first quarter, Ariza made all three of his three-pointers en route to 11 points. His three-pointer to beat the buzzer at halftime gave the Wizards a 15-point lead entering the locker room. And his dunk with about a minute left in the fourth quarter punctuated a great day for the franchise.
“Just living in the moment,” Ariza said of his buzzer-beater before halftime. “It gave us a lot of momentum. Just wanted to . . . let my teammates know that when the ball comes to me, I’m ready for it and we’re not losing.”
That’s the thing about Ariza: He knows what it takes to win.
During their run to the 2009 title, Kobe Bryant was the Lakers’ first option on offense — and Ariza was way down the list.
The Lakers needed Ariza to play strong defense. While doing his part well, Ariza learned about the commitment it takes to reach the top of the game.
“You have to stay ready for everything,” Ariza said.
Wittman likes Ariza’s thinking. When the coach speaks to the Wizards about taking steps toward goals, he knows Ariza has already walked those roads.
“He understands the things that I’m trying to tell people [who] haven’t been there,” Wittman said. “I see him over there in his stall shaking his head [in agreement]. It helps.”
Ariza’s experience tells him the desperate Bulls will continue to claw in Game 5. That’s what the Bulls do. But the Wizards have shown grit as well, Ariza said — and they’re not about to stop now.
For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.
More Wizards and NBA coverage:
Box score: Wizards 98, Bulls 89
Photo gallery: Scenes from Verizon Center