“It was nice,” he said.
Ariza saved his words and insight for what was truly on his mind. Only two games into his return to the Wizards, Ariza can detect the team’s problems.
“Aw, man, personally I just feel like we have to do a better job of giving multiple effort,” Ariza said. “Basketball is a game of mistakes, and we know that we can make mistakes, but things that you can’t do is lack effort. We lack effort. A lot."
For the second straight game, the Wizards (12-20) were ineffective defensively from the three-point arc. It happened in small increments during Ariza’s debut when the Atlanta Hawks made 3 of 4 three-pointers while separating themselves in the fourth quarter. By Wednesday night, the Rockets drowned Washington under a torrent of 26 three-pointers, the most made during a game in league history. The previous mark of 25 was set by the Cleveland Cavaliers against the Hawks on March 3, 2017.
“They got a lot of good isolation plays, and they made tough threes,” Coach Scott Brooks said, justifying how Houston hit with 47.3 percent accuracy from beyond the arc. “They took 55 threes. We knew going into the game they were going to take a lot of them. They were hot, and they’ve been hot for a while now."
But the numbers reveal Houston’s accuracy was less about hot shooters and more about the lack of effort the Wizards gave.
According to NBA.com advanced statistics, Houston teed off on 27 shots that were categorized as “wide open,” meaning the closest Washington defender within distance was at least six feet away. All-star guards James Harden and Chris Paul combined to shoot 7 of 11 from the three-point arc on “open” attempts, in which the defender was four to six feet away. The Wizards were credited with contesting only four total shots when a defender was “very tight,” no more than two feet away.
In total, Houston shot 60 “uncontested” shots out of 85 attempts, according to NBA.com. When contrasting Washington with the Utah Jazz, which played the Rockets on Dec. 17, the lack of effort is noticeable. The Jazz allowed only 45 “uncontested” shots and was credited with contesting the other 41 attempts.
While Harden made several long-range shots that would rightfully frustrate any defender — one of his six threes came in front of a 6-foot-11 Thomas Bryant, who obeyed every rule of good defense and still couldn’t stop it — the Wizards also surrendered in effort on other attempts. When the Wizards still faced a reasonable deficit at 104-94, Houston reserve Danuel House Jr. made an open three in which the closest defender, John Wall, still had a foot in the paint. Later, as Michael Carter-Williams wound up for the history-making triple in the final seconds, Tomas Satoransky stopped short of closing out on the Rockets' shooter.
“Just extra effort, man,” Bradley Beal said. “Got to be committed to doing it.”
Wednesday might have represented a new low, but the Wizards have been dragging near the bottom of three-point defense all season.
Entering the matchup against Houston, another team averse to defense, Washington ranked 27th overall in defending the arc (36.7 percent). The Wizards allowed 48 attempts to the Rockets on Nov. 26 and let the Toronto Raptors connect on 17 threes a few days earlier. Both were season highs until the Rockets got another crack at Washington and obliterated the arc.
Though Ariza plays as an elite perimeter defender, he is still just one man. Early in the game, Ariza took turns defending Harden and point guard Chris Paul. However, Ariza matched up against Harden 50 percent of the time, more than any other Wizard. Though Ariza did well against the former MVP, holding him to 10 points, the Rockets scored 51 during this time, according to NBA.com.
Ariza’s individual effort, however, led him to jump passing lanes and collect three steals. He has nine through two games.
“I don’t think it’s hard to integrate somebody like him with his defensive presence,” Jeff Green said about Ariza. “We just have to be more aware. But we love the aggression. I love the aggression. When he does something like that, I mean, that’s what the team is for. It’s for us to help each other and be there for each other. If he sees something in which he can gamble to take that risk, if there’s a miss, we have to be there to protect him. I don’t think there’s any problem with what he does and how he plays. I personally love the way he plays, his aggression on the ball and how he plays.
“We have to learn from that and appreciate something like that,” Green said.
In other words, the Wizards need to learn to give better effort.