Little Tajh Ariza leaned up against a wall, beaming with his arms behind his back in the Staples Center visiting locker room as his father got dressed nearby after the Wizards completed a rally from an 18-point first-half deficit on Friday to upset the Los Angeles Lakers, 103-100.
Trevor Ariza might never forget this game – and not just because he made a career high seven three-pointers, scored 14 of his game-high 25 points in the fourth quarter and forced his former teammate, Kobe Bryant, into missing three shots in the final minutes. The game also fell on Tajh’s 5th birthday.
“Definitely a good birthday gift for him,” Ariza said with a smile. “He’s right here, chilling.”
Ariza had been looking forward to a return trip home for some time. After the Wizards beat the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday night, Ariza slipped on a Dodgers cap and some matching Chuck Taylors and couldn’t contain his joy about being back on the West Coast. He showed up for the game against the Lakers with a fresh new haircut and some new bright red sneakers.
With family and friends looking on, the former standout at Westchester High and UCLA had his most complete game since joining the Wizards. And with the team short-handed without Bradley Beal and Emeka Okafor, Ariza teamed with John Wall (24 points, career-high 16 assists) to lead the Wizards to a surprising win over a Lakers team that was trying to start fine-tuning for the postseason by welcoming back Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol from injury.
The Lakers jumped all over the Wizards, shooting 68.4 percent and leading by 16 points after the first quarter. They extended the lead to 18, but the Wizards never stopped competing; never stop pushing – and Ariza was one of the catalysts.
“We just came out and stuck to our game plan and executed,” Ariza said. “We didn’t stop fighting. We know that when you play hard, you give yourself a chance and that’s what we did.”
Ariza became the second Wizard in the past week to make seven three-pointers in a game, following Martell Webster, who did the same last Saturday in a win over Phoenix. On Friday, Ariza benefited from Wall’s relentless attacks of the basket, which forced the defense to collapse and left Ariza wide open in the corner, with plenty of time to knock down shots. Wall assisted Ariza on six of his nine field goals.
“Trevor Ariza has 12 attempts at threes and he was wide open. That’s inexcusable,” an irate Lakers Coach Mike D’Antoni said after the game.
Ariza made four of his three-pointers in the final period, tying the game at 79 and again at 86, and giving the Wizards a 94-92 lead. When asked about his proficiency from beyond the three-point line against the Lakers, Ariza said, “I was just getting a lot of open shots for one, knocking them down…I didn’t know. I was just shooting.”
But the Wizards wouldn’t have defeated the Lakers if Ariza was only focused on just shooting. Ariza was the Wizards’ most effective defender on Bryant, who scored 13 fourth-quarter points but shot just 4 of 10.
“I thought Trevor’s length made him take some tough shots, but the guy is still incredible,” Coach Randy Wittman said of Bryant, who made a ridiculous three-pointer that brought the Lakers within 101-100 with 2.3 seconds left.
Wittman couldn’t even look when Dwight Howard threw a perfect outlet pass to Bryant with 1.5 seconds left. Bryant pushed Ariza aside to catch the pass, then spun and squared up to shoot a potential tying shot that hit the side of the rim as time expired. “He got a good look. He got a real good look,” Ariza said. “I’m glad he missed it.”
Ariza has been playing his best basketball as a Wizard since the all-star break. In 16 games, he is averaging 12.8 points and 4.8 rebounds per game and shooting 42.5 percent from long distance. He has scored at least 20 points three times over that span, including posting a season-high 26 points on March 9 in a 104-87 win against Charlotte. The Wizards needed most all of Ariza’s points against the Lakers.
Though he won a championship with the Lakers in 2009 and is on his third team since leaving after that season, Ariza downplayed getting a win against his former team.
“It’s not really about the team that we play. It’s about getting a win. Of course, it’s a good thing to beat the Lakers, or whatever,” Ariza said. “Being home is cool. It’s great to get a win at home in front of your friends and your family. Other than that, just another basketball game.”
Other than that. Ariza was somewhat disappointed that UCLA went out in the first round of the NCAA tournament, but any negative feelings about the evening left the moment he placed his hand on his son and they walked out together. Both were still smiling.
“It was a little bit of everything,” Ariza said, when asked what led to his performance. “We’re trying to finish out strong. That, along with him being here makes it very special.”