Three games and two match-clinching steals later, Trevor Ariza was full of modesty Monday morning:
“If I can help my team with my scoring or defence, then I’ll [work] my butt off for it.”
Such responses are so often dished out after games that, in Ariza’s case, it really belies the manner in which the 6'8" forward has progressed since his Orlando Magic days.
Sidelined with an ankle break at that point, Ariza has been making up for lost time since—and his performances throughout this years’ playoffs have often been key to the Lakers’ performances.
Credit must be given to a Denver team who, at the start of the regular season, looked a million miles away from a booking mix-up with the WWE. Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson had probably pencilled in their respective holidays by this May bank holiday, so far were they from Championship contention.
Of course the latter’s replacement, Chauncey Billups, has received plenty of the praise for turning around the Colorado team’s fortunes. Yet it would appear that in this series, Anthony is huge.
In Game Three, it was Anthony’s first half explosion which kept the Nuggets holding on, and equally, it was his second half disappearance and Ariza’s thievery which led to him fouling out and his team’s eventual loss.
Denver, like so many other teams, live and die by their superstar. Across the continent, a similar situation is emerging, as the Cavaliers of the 2007 NBA Finals are rearing their long-forgotten heads. LeBron James has been forced to carry the burden of a dozen lackadaisical teammates towards victory, with unfavourable results.
The solution for Denver would seem to be the paint. In the second half of the last game, Anthony attempted only two field goals from there—a strong indicator as to why he only amassed three more points to his total of 21, ending his streak of consecutive playoff games with 30 or more points.
If Denver can do this, and force Kobe Bryant to take more off-balance jumpers, Shane Battier-style, there is no reason why they cannot pressure a reportedly arrogant team into a six- or seven-game series victory.
Of course, it is never that simple when the team you are facing has Hall of Fame written all over them. Phil Jackson, though supposedly feuding with young center Andrew Bynum and now more metal than man, is still performing his typical robotically-efficient job in leading his team towards the playoffs.
Kobe Bryant is the last player in the league to lie down at media claims that he is aging and his team is not passionate enough; along with Kevin Garnett, it is arguable that number 24 is the most intense player going.
So although it is still the case that Anthony’s Nuggets pose a mountain-sized obstacle for the Lakers, Kobe’s cold-blooded fourth quarter shooting (18 in Game Three) along with a certain Trevor Ariza’s clutch swipes maintain the idea that perhaps the biggest threat to back-to-back Finals appearances continues to be themselves.