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Though the Lakers fell to the Nuggets last night to cede homecourt advantage in the Western Conference Finals, it was a member of the purple and gold who caught my eye with his wise play at the offensive end.
It has been evident for some time that Trevor Ariza can defend, hustle all over the floor and use his leaping ability and speed to make himself a finisher. His shooting odyssey remains a mystery.
Prior to this postseason, nothing about Ariza marked him a potent outside shooter. He shoots a shade less than 30 percent for his career behind the three-point line and never averaged so much as an attempt per game in any of his first four seasons. This year, with an increased focus on making himself an outside threat, Ariza took 2.3 treys per game but hit 31.9 percent of them. That doesn't scream sharp-shooter. He didn't shoot as well as 35 percent from deep in any full calendar month for the 2008-09 campaign, and he finished the regular season with a miserable 3-for-16 mark across eight April contests.
But the playoffs have brought out a brand-new Ariza from behind the line. He entered Game 2 against Denver checking in at 21-for-44 (47.7 percent) on threes in 13 playoff games. With opponents focused on limiting Kobe Bryant's penetration and the Lakers' huge front line's opportunities inside, Ariza continued to get open looks from the outside and somehow started hitting them with far greater proficiency than ever before. His confidence rose, too, as evidenced by his increase to launching 3.4 attempts per game in the postseason.
This brings us to last night, when the Nuggets started taking a more aggressive approach defensively after Ariza knocked down his first three-pointer in the first five minutes of the game.
The Lakers continued to move the basketball and get Ariza decent looks at the basket from behind the arc. It would hardly have come as a shock if he kept flinging, especially given that he is a young player whose confidence and trigger-happiness have been steadily rising over the last month. Several of the looks he had would have been reasonable shots.
But Ariza did something even better instead. He recognized the Nuggets looking to knock him off the line or at least out of rhythm. Several times through the course of the game, Carmelo Anthony or occasionally another powder blue shirt came sprinting out from sitting in help on the interior to challenge Ariza at the arc. Rather than taking a semi-contested shot, Ariza up-faked hard and attacked the rim.
The results were excellent. Usually coming from the right wing, Ariza let his man go by him and then took the ball straight at the Nuggets' bigs en route to the bucket. With the exception of his two made three-point goals, each of his other five shots from the field came deep in the paint. He finished four lay-ups and dunks, including a third-quarter posterization of Dahntay Jones. With his explosiveness on full display, Ariza drew five shooting fouls. They led to eight free throw attempts because he finished buckets twice despite the contact.
Ariza made a pivotal error in the game's final 15 seconds when he couldn't fully corral a jump ball and lost control as he tried to throw a pass while being hit, which resulted in a turnover. But his efficient offensive contribution of 20 points on 6-for-7 shooting from the field and 6-for-8 foul shooting (not to mention his four mesmerizing steals at the defensive end) played an integral role in the Lakers getting off to the hot start they did and still being around to have a shot at the end of a 106-103 loss.
For a guy who hasn't always appeared to maintain control at the offensive end and once earned the "delusional" label from Larry Brown, Trevor Ariza looked like he had his thought process and body in near-perfect order at the offensive end last night.