Trevor Ariza has been a starting small forward in the NBA for a decade. He’s won a championship, played in the playoffs in nine of his 13 seasons and has come up big on the biggest stage.
Yet here he is again, back in his third Western Conference Finals, and while all of the conversation is about other players in this series — even P.J. Tucker and Eric Gordon are getting discussed far more frequently than Ariza — it’s the UCLA product who currently leads the playoffs in net rating. The Rockets are outscoring opponents by more than 16 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor. Second place among those still playing: Tucker, at +12 per 100 possessions.
In previous years, Ariza has looked as if he was running in slow motion, the result of being one of the most heavily used rotation players in the league since, really, his days in Washington. His legs have routinely failed the Rockets deep in the playoffs, and even now, he’s shooting just 32 percent from deep.
But unlike past years, Ariza’s drives to the hoop have been controlled and effective, rather than wild and destructive. He’s also first among all players in the playoffs at holding onto the ball, with just three turnovers over 12 games. Throw in the fact that he’s the Rockets’ best defender on Kevin Durant, was their best guy on Donovan Mitchell and basically shut down Andrew Wiggins, it’s wild he doesn’t get talked about as much.
Game 2 was his breakout moment. His 19 points and 6 assists were both high water marks in these playoffs. But that only made it more impressive. The Rockets first points of the game came when he stripped Durant clean and forced him to foul him; Durant would later sit down with too many fouls, so the play would wind up being pivotal.
It was big in the moment; Durant had laid waste to the Rockets in Game 1, and would do so again in Game 2 to an extent. The only difference was Ariza showed they were going to rise to his level, not shrink from it.
It’s no secret Ariza is close to his two Hall-of-Fame teammates. The impending free agent is likely to return considering how much value he brings to the locker room. Getting suspended for the third Warriors game for charging into the Clippers’ locker room may be dumb, but it’s the kind of thing that make your teammates trust you.
Trust is an important concept in the playoffs. In Game 2, the Rockets played like they trusted one another. They passed with impunity, and the ball’s energy led to confident shots from everybody. It’s been a truism since he’s come back to Houston: When Trevor Ariza plays well, the Rockets usually win.
That’s what needs to happen one of the next two games in Oakland. The Warriors will likely come out firing on Sunday night, and I would not give the Rockets any guff for losing that game. All they need to secure a 2-2 series in Houston is get one game. If Ariza can repeat his performance in Game 2, that becomes more of a likelihood than a long shot.