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Low-Key Trevor Ariza Is Critical to High-Octane Houston Rockets

Maurice Bobb@@ReeseReportFeatured ColumnistDecember 31, 2016

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - DECEMBER 9: Trevor Ariza #1 of the Houston Rockets goes up for a dunk against the Oklahoma City Thunder on December 9, 2016 at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images)
Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

Trevor Ariza doesn't do a lot of talking.

He's reserved, reticent and often a reluctant interviewee. He doesn't get too high or too low. He doesn't get loud, boisterous, shaken or taken out of his game. The Houston Rockets forward lets his play do the talking, even after the dust-up with Dallas Mavericks center Salah Mejri took an ugly turn in Tuesday night's 123-107 rout. 

Ariza received two technical fouls, got ejected and waited for Mejri outside of the Mavs' home-team locker room. And the 13-year veteran was already done with it.

"It's over," Ariza said. "I'm trying not to think about it. I know what happened. He knows what happened, and that's it."

So there he was, back in uniform against the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday night, doing all the little things that often go overlooked.

Lost in the revelry of James Harden's seventh triple-double of the season (30 PTS, 13 REB, 10 AST) and Montrezl Harrell's career-high 29 points in the Rockets' 140-116 drubbing of the Clippers were Ariza's pivotal 18 points (5-of-10 from behind the arc), four rebounds, two steals and seven assists.

HOUSTON, TX - DECEMBER 30:  Trevor Ariza #1 of the Houston Rockets controls  the ball defended by Raymond Felton #2 of the LA Clippers in the first half at Toyota Center on December 30, 2016 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and
Tim Warner/Getty Images
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Those kinds of numbers warrant people's attention, right?

"It should," Ariza said, laughing. "Whatever is needed or whatever we lack, I try to be, whatever that may be. I just try to make plays when needed and pick up the loose ends."

At 6'8", 215 pounds with a 7'2" wingspan, Ariza's unmatched utility and versatility reminds us of a Swiss army knife. He can defend, make plays, stretch the defense with his three-point shooting and just when the Rockets need it, he can hit a momentum-swinging dagger.

Yet on a team with Harden stirring the pot as the league's top MVP candidate, Ariza, despite averaging 12.5 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.1 steals per game, is the NBA's version of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man.

And he's fine with that.

"I mean that's what a team is about: just coming together and doing the things that are needed to win," Ariza said. "And you can't win without everybody contributing, and that's what we've all bought into."

Harden bought into playing point guard. Eric Gordon bought into coming off the bench. But Ariza didn't have to buy into anything.

His assimilation into Mike D'Antoni's system has been seamless.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN -  DECEMBER 17: Trevor Ariza #1 and James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets share a hug after the game against the Minnesota Timberwolves on December 17, 2016 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowl
Jordan Johnson/Getty Images

"Everything about him says team," Ariza said of his head coach. "Just the way he treats his players, his coaching staff, his style of play. It's all about everybody working together and making each other better."

In Houston's new high-powered offense, Ariza is free to be himself: a floater. He's the dependable glue guy and multipurpose weapon in D'Antoni's arsenal. More than that, he flat-out helps the Rockets win.

"He does everything," D'Antoni said. "He's just got a great game for us in the sense that he hits threes, he's smart defensively, he's all over the place, he's one of the best in steals. There's just so many areas. He can play forward, he can play 3, he can guard 1s, he can guard 2s.

"To be an elite team, you have to have guys like that. There's Kawhi Leonards and different guys like that, and we have him and he's been terrific."

Ariza's Glue-Guy Peers (2016-17)
PPGRPGAPGPER
Nicolas Batum14.77.65.916.27
Jae Crowder13.05.12.315.17
Trevor Ariza12.55.22.114.59
NBA.com

Ariza goes unnoticed by many, but he is doing for Houston what Shawn Marion did for the Phoenix Suns during D'Antoni's trailblazing reign a decade ago: spread the floor and cover all the gaps with positionless plays on offense and defense. 

During the 2002-03 season, Marion went from shooting 1.5 three-pointers per game to 4.5 while holding steady at 38.7 percent from deep. This year, Ariza is taking a career-high 7.1 shots from behind the arc, connecting on 38.4 percent.

Players can't live off past accomplishments forever, but the Los Angeles Lakers wouldn't have made it to the 2009 NBA Finals and won the championship without Ariza's two game-turning steals against the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals.

Those are worth mentioning now because Ariza has made a career on those kinds of plays. He's always among the league leaders in steals (tied for third with 2.1 per contest), and although he's not as quick as he was in his Laker days, his defense is still effective with a 106.5 rating. For comparison's sake, two-time Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard's defensive rating is 105.2.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press/Associated Press

"Trevor's one of the best vets I've ever seen," Harrell said. "He comes in every night and guards positions 1 through 5. I mean that literally. I've seen Trevor guarding Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins."

Ariza's penchant for hitting big shots was on full display in the fourth quarter of the Rockets' 111-109 overtime win over the Minnesota Timberwolves on December 17 at the Target Center.

With 11 seconds left in regulation, Harden got the ball on the inbounds play, dribbled into the lane and kicked it out to Ariza, who was waiting in the corner. Andrew Wiggins closed out, so Ariza stepped to his left and drained the long ball to tie it at 95, forcing overtime.

"I think we feel that no matter what the situation is, we're always in games," Ariza said. "Whether we're down 11 or whatever the case may be, or up, we feel like we're in games. And we have an opportunity to win just because of the confidence that we share with each other."

Ariza's work ethic and ability to keep opponents honest on both ends continue to separate him from other glue guys. That, and the fact that he makes the Rockets more efficient and makes everything work when he's on the court. When Ariza is in the game, whether it's on the first or second team, Houston scores 124.6 points per 100 possessions and 109.7 points per 100 possessions, respectively.

"He knows what it takes to win," said teammate Sam Dekker, who revealed he models his game after Ariza.

"He's going to play his game and does things the right way. He knows what's keeping him in the league, what's got him here, and he's going to do that every night. Playing good defense, hitting open shots, being a glue guy. When you play years with guys like Kobe and all the great players he's played with, the good teams he's been on, he brings some of those leadership aspects. That's a guy that we need if we want to make a run."

For all he does, though, Ariza is a team guy first, always deferring to the collective. As far as he's concerned, if the team succeeds, he succeeds.

"We know what we do well; we definitely do," Ariza said. "We can score really, really good. We score a lot of points, and during this time that we've been winning, we've been doing a really good job on defense, too. We continue to grow in areas that we haven't been doing such a great job at defensively, continue to execute on offense and we're in good shape."

                    

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats accurate as of Dec. 31 and courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.comMaurice Bobb covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ReeseReport.

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