The Lakers traded for Trevor Ariza a year and a half ago, a move that was viewed with raised eyebrows in the locker room because two popular players were sent away.
He was young, untested and an NBA unknown when he arrived, but it’s now safe to say Ariza has plenty of friends, especially after making in-game amends with the biggest defensive play of the Lakers’ still-evolving season.
The troubles Ariza had in guarding Carmelo Anthony were whisked away with his burst to the ball as Denver guard Anthony Carter inbounded it from the left side with 30.5 seconds left to play.
There was a little too much loft on the pass, Ariza was a little too fast in ripping the ball away before it got to Chauncey Billups, and the Lakers were a little too good for the Nuggets in taking Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, 105-103, Tuesday at Staples Center.
Kobe Bryant had 40 points, six rebounds and four assists, but the play of the game went to the player with only six points. Game 2 of the best-of-seven series is Thursday, also at Staples Center.
Ariza was the primary culprit in surrendering 39 points to Carmelo Anthony (14-for-20 shooting), but he protected a 101-99 Lakers lead with his third steal of the game.
“That was a huge play for us,” said Lakers Coach Phil Jackson, usually not one to use superlatives, though Ariza’s effort probably warranted such an assessment.
Always one to downplay his achievements, the low-key Ariza said Bryant should be credited for his defense on Anthony on the inbounds play, forcing Carter to try to lob the ball to Billups before the referees could call a five-second count.
Then Ariza gave the equivalent of a verbal shrug.
“He threw the ball with enough air for me to get it,” Ariza said. “That’s all.”
The Lakers had shrugged and stammered their way through a seven-game series against Houston in the West semifinals, but they stood strong in the fourth quarter against Denver.
Trailing by two when it began, the Lakers rode Bryant’s scoring flurry in the final 12 minutes. He had 18 points in the quarter, making four of five shots and all nine free-throw attempts.
He drilled a 27-foot three-pointer, converted a three-point play, scored on a 14-footer that bounced around before falling and also made a 20-footer. He also made two free throws after Ariza’s steal, giving the Lakers a 103-99 lead with 10 seconds left.
“Just had to gut it out,” Bryant said. “We were down virtually the whole game. I just had to dig deep a little bit and see if we can’t pull it out.”
Bryant was the Lakers’ lone threat on offense. Derek Fisher and Pau Gasol (13 points each) were the only other Lakers in double-figure scoring.
“We had so many guys that looked indecisive out there, which is a credit to their defense,” Jackson said. "[Bryant] was a scoring threat for us. We had very little else going for us.”
The Lakers had almost nothing going for them earlier in the game, missing seven of their first eight shots and trailing by as many as 13 in the first quarter as fans stirred restlessly in their seats.
Fisher’s three-pointer from the right corner provided a 55-54 Lakers lead as time expired in the second quarter, but Denver would not go away.
The Lakers’ frustration was evident when Bryant picked up his fifth technical foul of the playoffs after slamming the ball down in disgust in the third quarter when he didn’t getting a foul call on a shot at the other end.
Bryant will be suspended for one game if he picks up a seventh technical foul in the playoffs.
“I won’t get another one,” Bryant said, repeating it for emphasis.
The fact that Bryant scored at will on the Nuggets was no surprise. He averaged 31 points against them during the regular season, more than four above his average.
Ariza’s contribution, however, was just as important. The one-time lanky 22-year-old acquired from Orlando for Brian Cook and Maurice Evans had made the biggest play of his five-year career.