The big stage has been kind to Bradley Beal. Just 20 years old and in his second professional season, Beal took the reins in Game 2 of the first-round series against the Chicago Bulls, scoring 26 points and pulling down seven rebounds to lift the Washington Wizards to an overtime win and a 2-0 lead.
After an inconsistent and often inefficient season, it wasn't evident that Beal was ready to be a featured playoff scorer. Two magnified games later, it’s clear why the Wizards believe he will be exactly that.
Beal joins first-time All-Star John Wall in a guard duo so potential-laden and presently exciting that the public can no longer dismiss Washington’s backcourt as something merely of the future. Potential’s recognition, though, is as much about observing what a player lacks as it is about hoping he’ll become something greater than his current incarnation. While Wall and Beal grease the cogs of their own development with increasingly zealous performances, it is left to one of Washington’s unsung heroes to ease the inevitable growing pains of rapidly maturing talent.
Enter Trevor Ariza. When D.C.’s guards struggled from the field in the opener against the Bulls, Ariza became the efficient scorer (18 points on just eight shots) the team needed by knocking down uncontested 3-point attempts and scoring at the rim. When Beal picked up the scoring slack in Game 2, Ariza seamlessly transitioned to a facilitative role, tying for the team lead in both rebounds (eight) and assists (seven). Looking closer still, Ariza led the team in "free throw assists" (passes that end in free throw attempts for a teammate) and hockey assists.
When Wall couldn’t stay in front of a frenzied D.J. Augustin (25 points), Ariza asked for the assignment. From the time the 6-foot-8 swingman switched onto Augustin, with just over five minutes left in the fourth quarter until the end of overtime, the Bulls point guard missed all of his shots, including an attempt with 15 seconds remaining in regulation that would have put the Bulls up two.
For the Wizards, this is nothing new. While Wall and Beal remain the focal points of the franchise, Ariza, the only player on the Wizards' roster with a championship ring, has quietly become essential. The net value of his presence on the court, measured by on-court/off-court differential, was plus-6.3 points, which ranks behind only Marcin Gortat and Wall in Washington.
Ariza was slotted as the backup to Martell Webster coming into the season, and by many he was seen as eventual trade bait. His contract expires at the end of this season and he was a clear roster redundancy after the Wizards re-signed Webster for four years, $22 million and drafted Otto Porter Jr. third overall.
Now it’s hard to imagine this incarnation of the Wizards without him.
The "glue player" demarcation is overapplied, reached for when other easy definitions fail, and an easy definition would not be fair to the dynamic (contract) season Ariza has had. Or how resourceful he has been; during the regular season, Ariza was the biggest beneficiary of Wall's predilection for producing corner 3-pointers. The combination was so prolific that it made Ariza the league leader (78) in the category. In D.C., the early-season complaint about Ariza starting over Webster emerged from its cocoon at the All-Star break as panicked handwringing about an offseason price tag. With the Wizards, Ariza has found the niche that eluded him as he over-dribbled his way out of less productive stints in Houston and New Orleans.
Lost in the dusty annals of NBA history, alongside the scroll authored in the pyrite age of Wizards basketball by Ted Leonsis that contemplated Javale McGee’s erudition, is record of Ariza’s first four seasons, in which he took a combined 43 3-pointers. Compare that number to the 442 he attempted this season. Don’t rush to understand, because Ariza surely doesn’t. Asked about going 5-for-5 on 3-pointers against the Orlando Magic in February, Ariza smiled, scratched his head self-effacingly and said, "I guess I'm living right."
In the postgame locker room, Ariza is bright, insightful and hilariously candid about not remembering what has transpired during any given game. Part amnesiac, part basketball intellectual, all California chillwave. From the first to the last game of the season, Ariza disregarded highs and lows alike, never seeming to break an emotional sweat. Which made it all the more surprising, and delightful, when he finally broke character.
With the Wizards down 69-61 to the Bulls in Game 1, Ariza found himself unable to shake off Jimmy Butler. After a momentary handoff to Nene, Ariza tried again, driving around Carlos Boozer and right at Joakim Noah. Noah, the defensive player of the year, shot a hand straight up, but couldn't account for what is so typical of Ariza's layups, a somehow languorous contortion that hooks close around defenders like hookah smoke before finishing awkwardly through the only window available.
It was then, running up the court after a layup, in the third quarter of his team's first playoff game since 2008, that Ariza finally reacted. His fists clenched before his face changed unrecognizably into a scowl as he threw both arms down and belted out an atypically impassioned “LET'S GO!”
And then, as if he was afraid it didn't take, another one. Nene, running beside him, enthusiastically joined the out-of-character rallying cry. In a game where Charles Barkley observed that the Wizards seemed as though they didn't fully realize they were in the playoffs until late, it may have been Ariza who again gave his team what they badly needed. This time it was fire.