The NBA playoffs are a basketball fan’s dream; there are anywhere between two and four competitive basketball games on every night, each with their own allure, their own stars, and their own evolving narrative. There’s so much to enjoy and so much to learn, and unfortunately — due to wide, national broadcasting and the influx of casual sports fans — so much to misunderstand.
Case in point: Trevor Ariza, Chris Paul’s uncharacteristically efficient sidekick. Those joining the NBA season already in progress have seen Ariza at his finest against the Lakers, performing at a high level on both ends of the court. On-ball perimeter defense has always been among Ariza’s strengths; he has the length and athleticism to bother even the league’s finest scorers, and has done solid work against Kobe Bryant in this particular series. Yet offensively, Ariza has been oddly successful. He’s posted three games with 19 or more points on decent shooting percentages, and even grabbed 12 rebounds (to go along with 12 points) in another contest. For five games, Ariza has been everything that his reputation once suggested he could be, granting unsuspecting sports fans all the fodder they need to trumpet his success.
Ariza has held up well under the bright lights, but he hasn’t evolved from the player we’ve seen in an 146-game sample over the last two years. Basketball players are prone to periodic ups and downs, and Ariza happens to be experiencing a favorable swing at the best possible moment. He’s posted a 16.6 PER in the playoffs thus far — a far cry from his 11.3 regular season mark — and given his team a huge lift in their attempt to upset the Lakers in the first round.
That’s why he’ll be a water cooler talking point and a sports bar spectacle. Those merely stopping by to catch a playoff game can watch Ariza’s effective play and eat up his story (An unassuming non-star and a “wronged” player returning to face the team who wronged him!), but League Pass junkies know better than to be fooled by this kind of mirage. There’s nothing in the film or in the numbers that suggests Ariza’s new-found efficiency is indicative of legitimate improvement. It’s fun nonetheless to see him working on a more efficient level, but all of the good will and media attention in the world won’t make Ariza anything but himself. This is still the player who shot under 40 percent from the field and just over 30 percent from the three-point line during the regular season. This is still the player who dribbles away possessions while obliging his own delusions. He’s merely experiencing a very natural — and temporary — upward trend in his production, and as the sample size continues to increase, his numbers will trend back to their regular season anchor.
The Lakers will probably win the series, so it’s unlikely we’ll ever have that opportunity. Still, these exceptional shooting performances (5-of-8 from beyond the arc?!) are just that.