- J.A. Adande, NBA
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LOS ANGELES -- In a Lakers-Rockets game with no shortage of big names, you had to dig deep through the box score to find the real star, the guy Phil Jackson calls a "stealth player."
Six of his teammates scored more points. Pau Gasol grabbed nearly twice as many rebounds. But Trevor Ariza was the guy secretly responsible for an astounding 45-point swing, from a 16-point Rockets lead early in the second quarter to a 111-82 Lakers victory.
For all the stat geeks, Ariza had a plus/minus of +34 Sunday night. Put that in your web browser and click it. Good things happen when Ariza is on the court, even if he doesn't always get his name called over the loudspeakers when the play is finished.
"He's like a ghost out there," Jackson said. "Like a shadow. Just all of a sudden he shows on a screen, he's gone. He's a blip and he's away."
Ariza even tried to slip out of the postgame locker room, waiting until a crowd gathered around Andrew Bynum before moving around the reporters and flashing a "peace out" sign to the big center, until Lakers public relations director John Black reeled him in.
"Come here, Trevor," Black said. "You can't play that well and leave."
No, you can't have eight points, eight rebounds, three steals and three assists in 25 important minutes without coming in to explain yourself, even if it's just elaborating on Jackson's stealth description.
"I'm the type of player, I like to be sneaky," Ariza said. "That's how I get most of my steals, hiding behind guys and at the last second jumping in front. I try to be a team player. Whatever the team needs me to do to help us win."
He couldn't help the Lakers in the second half of last season after he fractured his foot in January. He returned in the playoffs, but with limited time and impact. Ariza said his foot didn't feel completely ready until a month before training camp this fall.
In one of the Lakers' first big showdowns of the season, against a team that seriously aspires to take their Western Conference crown, Ariza showed why his healed foot could turn out to be a bigger impact than the Rockets' trade for Ron Artest. Artest is, shall we say, more noticeable than Ariza, and a much greater threat to get 20 points. But Ariza's squad is undefeated after five games, while the Rockets are 4-3.
(It didn't help that Tracy McGrady essentially took the weekend in L.A. off, making only 1 of 11 shots Sunday after missing all five attempts Friday against the Clippers. "Probably the worst two games of my career," he said.)
The Lakers are one of the league's elite defensive teams now. They're tops in opponents' scoring and second in defensive field goal percentage. They have an abundance of that coveted asset, "length." As one scout described them, "They're all arms."
Ariza gives the Lakers another athletic player, a role Kobe Bryant has had to fill virtually by himself the past few years.
"It's fun on the wing, when we're both out there on the floor," Bryant said. "We really get a chance to get after the wings, harass them, get in passing lanes, things of that nature. It adds another dimension to our team because he can get possessions back for us."
Such as the tip-in attempt that Ariza missed, but successfully kept alive for Lamar Odom to grab and score. Or the time he swooped in on the weak side to take the ball away from two Rockets after a missed Jordan Farmar jumper, resulting in a bucket for Bryant. Or the ball he poked away from Artest to start a fast break the other way. They were all part of a second quarter in which the Lakers outscored the Rockets 34-20 to take the lead for good after a dismal first quarter.
Thanks to a schedule quirk, the Lakers played only one game last week, against the Clippers on Wednesday. They spent the first quarter of that contest looking like a team that wasn't up to game speed. They committed eight turnovers thanks to a series of poorly timed alley-oops, sloppy give-and-gos and bad entry passes. That, plus 29 percent shooting, led to a 28-16 Houston lead after one.
Then the second units took the court for period two. Ariza, Farmar, Sasha Vujacic and Odom to go with Bynum, against Aaron Brooks, Chuck Hayes, Luther Head, Brent Barry and Carl Landry for Houston. Advantage Lakers.
"We have two good units that go out there and play, and they're both drastically different," Bynum said. "The first unit is kind of slow, methodical, they're passing the ball to myself or Pau. Kobe's on the weak side, just kind of taking advantage of people. The second unit comes in, they're a fast-break, push team. They get a lot of steals."
The second unit was the group that brought the Lakers back into the game in the second quarter, and the group (with Gasol at center for Bynum) that put it away at the start of the fourth, stretching the lead from seven to 17.
That meant another easy night for Bryant, whose services were required for only 33 minutes Sunday, right on his season average and in line with Jackson's plan for less wear and tear on his superstar who played on the Olympic team this summer after carrying the Lakers to the Finals last season. The Lakers have leaned on Bryant only once so far, in the fourth quarter at Denver. Otherwise it's been a teamwide effort. At this rate, Bryant will be much fresher for a deep playoff run.
Will the Rockets be around to face them as May turns to June? Not if they keep playing at this level.
"I think it was the worst game we have ever had," Yao said.
Coach Rick Adelman pointed to their one-on-one play on offense and their undersized frontline when Yao goes out. They need to send their equivalent of the Bat signal to Dikembe Mutombo (hold one of those giant foam fingers in front of a searchlight and wag it) to lure the center back. McGrady needs to find his shot again. Artest can't try to do too much offensively.
The Lakers haven't achieved perfection, and they struggled in their only journey outside of Staples Center this season. But they have discovered the value of Ariza, a key component of their early success ... when you can find him.
J.A. Adande joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.
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