NEW YORK – When Trevor Ariza and his agent, Rob Pelinka, negotiate with the Wizards or any other free agent suitors this summer, they will likely only need to show up with DVDs of two games.
First, they would have interested league executives watch Ariza’s performance against Kevin Durant on Feb. 1, when the NBA’s leading scorer and prohibitive favorite to win the league’s most valuable player award missed 13 of his 21 shots. And second, they would show them footage of what happened on Friday night at Madison Square Garden, where Ariza fought off the effects of the flu to make Carmelo Anthony appear ill during a 90-89 win.
Bradley Beal played the role of hero in New York for the second time this season as he scored 13 fourth-quarter points, including the game-winning jumper with 22 seconds remaining. But Ariza was equally important in limiting the NBA’s second-leading scorer to just 10 points — nearly 18 below his scoring average both for the season and in the previous two games against Washington.
“I know I had a tough matchup,” Ariza said. “I decided to save all of my energy for the defensive end because we have other scorers on our team. I knew I was going to have the marquee matchup. He’s an unbelievable scorer.”
Anthony missed 9 of 14 shots and also committed nine turnovers, forcing the Knicks to lean more on J.R. Smith, who consistently dared his luck by taking difficult shots only to watch them fall. Smith scored a game-high 32 points and connected on eight three-pointers – three more than the Wizards converted as a team. But Washington avoided a loss because Ariza never gave Anthony much room to move and used his extra-long arms to force the all-star forward into making bad passes.
“Trevor’s defense was outstanding,” said Coach Randy Wittman, who also credited Trevor Booker for taking on the assignment while Ariza rested. “All you can do is make it hard on a guy like that.”
After the game, Anthony explained that a shoulder injury suffered two nights earlier in the Knicks’ win over Brooklyn contributed to his offensive woes.
“Throughout the game, there was no strength,” said Anthony, who had X-rays afterward that came up negative.
The injured shoulder didn’t stop Anthony from making both of his shot attempts in the fourth quarter, including a pull-up jumper with 93 seconds remaining to bring the Knicks within 88-86. It also didn’t keep him from finding Raymond Felton in the corner with a pass that put the Knicks ahead by one a minute later. But Anthony felt that his weakened right arm contributed to a sloppy finish on the final possession.
Anthony drove left, with Ariza hounding him the whole way, and then let the ball slip from his hands. John Wall batted the ball out to Smith, who found a tough shot that he couldn’t make as time expired.
“I saw Trevor bite to the right and I tried to clear the lane and I lost the ball,” Anthony said. “There was no way I was coming out – not under those circumstances. Not in this dogfight that we were in.”
The loss dropped the Knicks (33-44) to ninth in the Eastern Conference. Ariza felt a similar sense of urgency to help the Wizards at least maintain their hold on the sixth seed. After the game he sat drained in front of his locker, covered in towels and coughing into his hand as he checked his cellphone.
“He was fighting with two things,” Marcin Gortat said. “He was fighting with Carmelo. Then he was fighting with the flu. Huge, huge for him being on the court with us. He’s choking, he’s spitting his heart out. He’s barely standing and he still had to fight one of the best scorers, if not the best scorer in the league. He wasn’t 100 percent ready to play but he did great.”
Ariza scored only 10 points but he once again proved his value to the Wizards goes far beyond his ability to contribute offensively. He learned from his AAU coach that defense will always earn him a spot on the floor. And soon, it will probably earn the 28-year-old swingman a lot of money.
“That’s the biggest key to our team, in my opinion,” Wall said of Ariza. “The way he’s shooting the ball and playing this season. but what he does defensively, he takes the challenge of guarding the best offensive player on any given night. He doesn’t complain about it. He goes out and does it and he’s one of the best at that position, of playing defense and he’s done a great job on most of the people we’ve played this season.”
Durant has scored at least 25 points in 40 consecutive games, tying Michael Jordan for the third-longest streak in NBA history, but tied his lowest scoring performance during that run with just 26 points when returned home to Washington two months ago.
LeBron James has shot worse than 45 percent in only seven games this season and it probably wasn’t a coincidence that one of them came when matched up with a sick Ariza on Jan. 15. In that game, the four-time MVP missed 10 of 18 shots.
“I don’t know. Just try to take them off they sweet spots some times, but hope they miss,” Ariza said, explaining his strategy against some of the game’s best scorers. “That’s what you’ve got to do when you want to win. That’s what all this is about, it’s about winning. I try to help my team as much as I can.”