Forward Trevor Ariza isn't impressed when he hears "career playoff high" attached to his accomplishments, as he did after scoring 21 points in Game 1 and recording nine assists in Game 2 of the Lakers' first-round series against the Jazz. To him, the words seem redundant even though he had technically played 12 playoff games before this postseason.
"I haven't proven anything. I haven't played in the playoffs," the five-year veteran said. "It was frustrating [last season] because I did want to play and I thought I could help our team, but I still was hurt so it didn't work out well. ... This season, it's a good feeling to actually be out there and help the team."
Ariza averaged only 5.6 minutes in eight playoff games last season after missing the last three months of the regular season with a broken right foot. He also appeared in four playoff games the previous season for the Magic, who traded him to the Lakers for Brian Cook and Maurice Evans in November 2007.
The Lakers are reaping the rewards of that deal this season. Ariza has emerged as a valuable contributor on both ends of the court, averaging career highs of 8.9 points and 1.7 steals while splitting time as a starter and reserve for top-seeded Los Angeles.
Ariza has started the last 21 games, including the Lakers' back-to-back victories to open the postseason. His ability to make an impact in a variety of ways has impressed teammates such as forward Lamar Odom, who has returned to a reserve role thanks to Ariza's ascension to the starting lineup and center Andrew Bynum's late-season comeback from a knee injury.
"I admire him because he's one of the few players who can change a game without his number being called," said Odom, who sits next to Ariza in the Lakers' locker room. "I always tell him to go change the game. There aren't too many guys in the NBA that have that kind of ability."
Before Ariza could change games, however, he first had to adjust to the Lakers' system. Though last season's trade from Orlando brought him back to Southern California (where he starred at Westchester High School and spent one year at UCLA), he might as well have been shipped off to Europe given his early difficulties learning the Lakers' triangle offense.
"I'm not going to lie, the first two weeks I was here, I had no idea what was going on," Ariza said. "It was like I was learning Japanese." (Ariza should know; he's learning to speak Japanese so he can communicate with his 1-year-old son, who is half-Japanese, in two languages.)
Ariza, however, didn't take too long to grasp the spacing and progressions of the offense. He began to play with more confidence than at any point in his career, and the Lakers hastened his transition by inserting him into the starting lineup a month after his arrival last season.
"There wasn't an 'ah-ha' moment, but I do think playing with the starters gave him a different feel," coach Phil Jackson said. "With the second unit it was high speed, but with the starters there was more deliberate play and more subtlety and he learned.
"Trevor knows that he has that ability to change the game by stealing the ball, getting through picks and doing things that are disruptive to the opponent."
Ariza has been a disruptive force early in the 2009 playoffs. In Game 1 against the Jazz, he not only shut down Kyle Korver (2-of-6, seven points) but also hit back-to-back three-pointers and added a couple of driving dunks in the first quarter to help the Lakers race to a 30-19 lead. In Game 2, the Jazz trailed only 109-106 with 2:45 left when Ariza stole a pass from Korver and fed Odom for a layup. Then, with 33 seconds remaining, Ariza made a three-pointer that extended the lead to 116-108.
"He had a great game, and I don't just mean shooting," Jackson said after Game 2. "He had a great game defensively. I thought he did a good job for us on one of their premier shooters in Korver. This is what we really look for from Trevor, those defensive steals and being able to run out. Making those three-point shots, that's icing on the cake."
Soft-spoken in front of the cameras, Ariza is one of the most competitive players on the team, often letting that competitiveness boil over onto the court. While that fire used to get him in trouble in high school (he once chased around campus a kid who didn't take a pick-up game seriously), it has helped make him one of Kobe Bryant's closest friends on the team. Bryant even had the launch of his new shoe this season at his teammate's old high school, with Ariza the only Laker to attend.
"When he came here, I think people went off his past reputation," Bryant said of Ariza, who started his career with the Knicks before being traded to Orlando. "They didn't think he could shoot, they didn't think he could do this or that, but he just wasn't given the chance. Now people see what he can do. They notice his three-point shooting, his defense and what kind of player he is. He's been huge for us."