Trevor Ariza has been a solid role player all season for the Lakers. On a team with so many proficient scorers, Ariza has found his niche. In the shadow of Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, he has made himself into the energy guy – a player that can spark a scoring run, be another body in the paint, and make hustle plays on both offense and defense. Ariza had done that sufficiently throughout the regular season, but raised every aspect of his game in the playoffs.
He played all 82 games this season, becoming a piece of the Lakers’ periphery. But in 16 playoff games in 2009, Ariza has come alive. He’s raised his scoring average to 11 points a game and saved the team in Game 1 and Game 3 of the Western Conference finals with steals off inbounds passes late in each game. As long as he is active, in any way, the Lakers’ chance of winning against the Denver Nuggets is increased significantly.
Ariza was everywhere in the first 3 games of the Western Conference finals. In Game 2, he almost matched his playoff high with 20 points, but did reach his steals high with 4. He followed that up with 16 points in Game 3. But if Ariza’s production falls off, it would ultimately doom Los Angeles in this series.
Ariza's game-saving steals from Game 1 and Game 3.
Case in point: Game 4.
In Game 4 on Monday night, Ariza was nowhere to be seen. He picked up two quick fouls in the first quarter and shot 0-2 from the field; both shots coming from behind the arc. The fouls and long-range shots were clear compensations for diminished athleticism. Ariza took a couple of hard fouls earlier in the series, giving him a sore hip to deal with. He left Game 3 but returned to the floor.
He was on the court for only 11 minutes in the first half, and made little to no improvement in 15 second half minutes. The injury rendered him useless and totally ineffective. His poor play caused the Lakers to lose decisively to Denver, 120-101.
Ariza is the only role player who has played above expectations and made a positive impact. Lamar Odom has become a great liability. It seems that every dumb foul, infraction or turnover stems from a mistake by Odom. He's averaging 11 points and over 9 rebounds in the postseason. But in the Conference finals, his numbers have declined. Only 7.5 points and 4.5 rebounds a game against Denver. He also has 6 turnovers in the series -- three of them coming in Game 4.
Andrew Bynum is a waste of space for the majority of the time he’s on the floor. Despite his great size, Bynum disappears in the paint. His inability to even get close range shots is eerie. The knee surgery is not a valid argument to use in defense of Bynum. While he may still be suffering from the ill effects of that operation, he shouldn’t have such a difficult time being a 4th, even 5th, scoring option. He’s the biggest person on the floor, but he plays smaller than he actually is.
His defense is no better. Whenever he is on the court without Pau Gasol, Los Angeles’ interior defense is decayed.
Derek Fisher and Sasha Vujacic have not gotten their shots to fall this series. Fisher, a starter, has only connected on 10 field goals in the four games against Denver. Vujacic, who has not played a full game’s worth of minutes in the series, has made 4; all of them being 3 point shots.
Luke Walton has been nonexistent; Shannon Brown has not been able to get going; and Jordan Farmar has been vastly underused in Fisher’s struggles. Farmar, the 2nd year point guard out of UCLA, has averaged about 11 minutes a contest in the Denver series.
Every single role player has not performed in a noticeably constructive manner in the Western Conference finals. Everyone except for Trevor Ariza. He has been the only one showing grit, intensity and efficiency. He’s played his role as the energy guy, and much more, filling the gaps left by so many others in the Lakers’ periphery. Without him, there is a considerable lack of toughness on the team.
If Ariza does not get healthy, the Los Angeles Lakers can kiss this conference championship goodbye, unless, of course, someone can step up. But with the way this series has gone, it’s not likely. Trevor Ariza is, without a doubt, the Lakers’ most important role player.