Lakers’ Ariza finds right fit
The Lakers are looking for redemption in the NBA Finals. In many ways, so is Trevor Ariza.
The Lakers’ starting small forward was jettisoned by the Orlando Magic in November 2007, deemed a non-fit for an offense that required shooters, not stoppers, under the system of newly hired Coach Stan Van Gundy.
The Lakers saw a hint of potential in Ariza and sent Brian Cook and Maurice Evans to the Magic for Ariza, a trade that surprised several Lakers players who were close to Cook and Evans.
Orlando seemed torn. A story in the Orlando Sentinel the day of the trade referred to Ariza as a “promising player” and quoted Magic General Manager Otis Smith as saying “He’s one of ‘my kids.’ ”
Van Gundy, however, was less fond of Ariza in his comments.
“Trevor was in a tough situation,” he said at the time. “I hope he finds the right situation. I think it was a good move for us.”
Neither Cook nor Evans is still with the Magic. Cook was traded to Houston a few months ago for Rafer Alston. Evans signed with Atlanta as a free agent last July.
Ariza, obviously, is still with the Lakers, averaging 11.4 points and shooting 50% from three-point range in the playoffs, putting him third among players with 20 or more attempts beyond the arc in the playoffs. He also had game-turning steals twice against Denver in the Western Conference finals.
Now he gets to show what he can do against his former team in the NBA Finals, which begin Thursday at Staples Center.
“I made a lot of friends there,” Ariza said. “But now it’s business.”
Not long after Van Gundy was hired in June 2007 to coach Orlando, he met with Ariza in Los Angeles. Van Gundy said Ariza would be an important part of his plans in Orlando, but it didn’t work out that way, for a variety of reasons. The Magic ended up signing sharpshooter Rashard Lewis to a six-year, $118-million free-agent contract in July of that year.
Van Gundy also ended up wanting a solid shooter at small forward, which wasn’t a big part of Ariza’s game at the time. He was reduced to limited minutes as a defensive specialist.
After averaging 8.9 points and 4.4 rebounds in 22.4 minutes a game under Coach Brian Hill in 2006-07, Ariza was averaging only 3.3 points and 10.5 minutes under Van Gundy when he was traded to the Lakers three weeks into the 2007-08 season.
Ariza was asked Monday if he had any hard feelings toward Van Gundy.
“It’s not about me, or one person in this series. It’s about a team,” Ariza said. “I think he’s a good coach. I didn’t fit into his style of play, and that’s fine with me. You’re not going to fit into everybody’s system.”
The Lakers certainly don’t harbor any hard feelings about the trade, particularly after Ariza worked dutifully on his outside shot last summer. Despite all the buzz about Orlando’s outside shooting, Ariza is showing better accuracy than any of the Magic’s three-point shooters in the playoffs.
“For a lot of people in the league, this is a young guy who came out early [from UCLA] and bounced around from New York to Orlando, had some issues early with injures and playing time,” Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said. “Here he is now as a starter that’s a solid performer. We think of him as a night-in, night-out performer for us.”
It’s not official yet, but it looks as if the Lakers have settled on a defensive plan for an Orlando team that made it this far with a strong post presence, in Dwight Howard, and a number of perimeter shooters.
In the frontcourt, Andrew Bynum will guard Howard, Ariza will guard Hedo Turkoglu and, perhaps the key match-up of the series, Pau Gasol will try to stay with Rashard Lewis.
Lewis is a 6-foot-10 power forward, but he does most of his work from the outside. He led the league with 220 three-pointers in the regular season.
“Most of the power forwards in this league, they move around 15, 18 feet in,” Gasol said. “With Lewis, you got to work 18 feet out all the way out to the three-point line, even deeper. So you have to be aware of that. That changes a little bit of your moves and your instincts. Hopefully, during these couple of days, I’m going to get used to that and make sure he doesn’t get clean looks and good shots at the basket.”
In the post, Bynum collected nine fouls in two regular-season games against Howard, but Jackson didn’t seem overly concerned about foul trouble.
“We have three big guys with solid bodies that could play him,” Jackson said.
In other words, third-string center DJ Mbenga might get some time in this series after averaging only 2.5 minutes a game in the Western finals.
If Orlando gets behind early, it’s not a big deal to Magic fans. There’s plenty of time for a comeback. In fact, Orlando has unveiled several key fourth quarters in the playoffs.
The Magic outscored Boston, 35-21, in the fourth quarter of a 101-82 victory in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Magic also outscored Cleveland four times in the first four games of the Eastern finals on the way to a 3-1 series lead.
Brian Shaw, who spent part of his playing career with the Magic and was the Lakers’ assistant coach designated by Jackson to track Orlando throughout the season, knows why Orlando often saves its best for last.
“What happens with them a lot is at the beginning of the game they really emphasize trying to get the ball to Dwight Howard. And when they do that, some of their outside shooters don’t take the shots they normally take later in the game,” Shaw said. “That’s why a lot of times they fall behind in games early. I think once they feed him early on in the game, then everything produces because the defense starts to collapse on him. And then they’re more free to come down and start draining threes as the game goes on. With their style of play, no lead is big enough for them not to come back from.
“But at the same time, when those shots aren’t going in and they have a lead on you, the lead isn’t big enough so that you can’t come back. That’s the style they play. They kind of live and die with the three-point shot.”
Lakers assistant coach Kurt Rambis interviewed Monday with the Sacramento Kings. Rambis, former Pepperdine coach Paul Westphal and Boston Celtics assistant Tom Thibodeau are candidates for the job. . . . Orlando guard Jameer Nelson had what the team referred to as season-ending shoulder surgery in February, though he has been practicing and said Monday he wanted to play in the Finals. Orlando General Manager Otis Smith wasn’t so sure. “It’s still ‘no’ in my mind,” Smith told the Associated Press. “There’s a very smidgen of a chance he can play.” Nelson was averaging 16.7 points and 5.4 assists when he went down because of a dislocated right shoulder.
Times staff writer Mark Medina contributed to this report.