Trevor Ariza held his follow-through for a few seconds, watching not only the ball flow through the net as the first half expired but the rest of his teammates and the Verizon Center crowd erupt in pandemonium around him.
That buzzer-beating three-pointer gave the Wizards a 15-point halftime lead against the Chicago Bulls on Sunday, and Ariza's 30 points helped Washington win, 98-89, in Game 4 of the teams' first-round playoff series.
Ariza said after the game that he knew someone had to step up in the absence of Nenê, who was suspended for the game after an altercation with Bulls guard Jimmy Butler in Game 3 on Friday.
With four previous postseason runs and 44 playoff games behind him, including a championship with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2009, Ariza took it upon himself to lead the Wizards to a 3-1 advantage in the best-of-seven series, which would end should Washington defeat the Bulls in Chicago on Tuesday.
"I think he just understands," said coach Randy Wittman said. "The things that I'm trying to tell people that haven't been there, I see him over there in his stall [nodding] his head, so it helps."
Ariza's performance wasn't completely unexpected; he averaged 14 points per game during the first three games of the series, just shy of his season average of 14.4 points per game. He scored 40 points in a 122-103 road victory over the Philadelphia 76ers on March 1, and he surpassed 20 points in 17 other regular-season games.
But it was the efficiency with which he shot – he went 10-for-17, and 6-for-10 from three-point range – and the timeliness of his baskets that not only kept the Wizards comfortably ahead of their opponents, but maintained the excitement in front of a crowd that was skeptical of their effort after an uninspired Game 3 defeat.
"I'm happy for him," said guard Andre Miller, who has played in 56 career postseason games but has never advanced out of the first round. "I mean, he's been in this position before, and he's confident. He's coming out, taking on defensive challenges and just getting us going all-around. That's what he's done his whole career, and you know, it's a big stage for him, for me, just for everybody."
Ariza was a fresh-faced 23-year-old in 2009, when he moved into the starting lineup a month before the Lakers began their playoff run. He started each of the team's 23 playoff games, which included series victories over the Utah Jazz, Houston Rockets and Denver Nuggets before the Orlando Magic fell in five games in the NBA Finals.
He returned to the postseason two years later with the New Orleans Hornets, though he played in only six games – again as a starter – before his team was bounced in the first round by the Lakers. When he was traded to the Wizards prior to last season, he had already established himself not only as a clutch shooter, but as a lock-down defender as well.
"Ariza is a championship-level player," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said Friday morning at Verizon Center, before the teams were set to meet in Game 3. "He's just very efficient, guards everyone, and he's just one of those guys – you look at every winning team, and they've all got a guy like that. He embraces his role. We know how good they are."
It was a perfect match for the Wizards, who under Wittman morphed into a defensive-minded, perimeter-shooting team.
"He's a heck of a competitor," Thibodeau said. "The thing is, he came into the league as that – as more of a defensive, high-energy type of guy, and he made himself into a terrific all-around player. He shoots the three extremely well now. He moves without the ball. He makes plays. He's a heck of a player, and that's why sometimes, he probably doesn't get the credit he deserves, but he is a heck of a player."
A playoff run will only help Ariza, 28, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent after the season. He's bounced between six teams since being taken 43rd overall by the New York Knicks in the NBA draft in 2004 and he may have finally settled in with Washington, where he exercised his nearly $7.7 million player option for this season last June.
The cost to bring Ariza back next season may be steep, especially given the Wizards' other concerns, but it's hard to put a price on postseason success.
As Ariza stood admiring that shot Sunday afternoon before being hugged by his teammates, he delivered two messages: The Wizards wouldn't back down, and neither would he.
"I just wanted to let my teammates know that when the ball comes to me, I'm ready for it, and we're not losing," Ariza said. "We've got to keep going, and that was our mentality."
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