The Chicago Bulls were a putrid offensive team by almost every measure. They finished 27th in the league in scoring efficiency, notching just 99.7 points per 100 possessions. If not for another point guard reclamation project by Tom Thibodeau in the form of DJ Augustin, they could very well have been the worst in the league. The entire offense is predicated on what Joakim Noah can conjure up from the high post. If he's not picking out cutters or executing dribble handoffs, they would struggle to even find a clean look at the basket.
But this was still a team capable of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. The Wizards may have won the series in five convincing games, but each game came down to just a few possessions.
And that's where Trevor Ariza made his mark. He assumed the toughest defensive assignment in fourth quarters, shut down his mark and ran back down the floor to sink 47 percent of his three point attempts. He looked like the best player on the floor for a considerable portion of the series and mitigated much of the strain headed John Wall and Bradley Beal's way.
And that was the biggest obstacle in this series. D.J. Augustin was poised to join the likes of Phil Pressey and Isaiah Thomas as just another small point guard that gives Wall fits on defense. He has a terrific off-the-dribble game, navigates through pick and rolls extremely well and can burn the defense for going under screens.
Ariza was having none of it. Augustin was rendered useless once Ariza switched onto him late in the fourth quarter of Game 2, and from then on, was completely taken out of the Bulls game plan. He shot just 8-35 the rest of the series, and Chicago relied on the likes of Kirk Hinrich and Jimmy Butler to close out tight ball games.
But this was just one part of the equation for Ariza. His role on defense was contingent upon on who was going off at the time. If it was Mike Dunleavy coming off a 35 point night or even Jimmy Butler making two jumpers in a row, that's who he was going to defend.
These were the types of plays Ariza made throughout the series. He's strong enough to fight over the screen, quick enough to slide his feet and stay with Butler's drive and long enough to block the shot.
This is what makes him so valuable. He leverages his length in so many ways, and it's made him so effective in taking that initial bump from the screener, recovering and still being able to contest shots. You almost never see him getting caught up in screens either because he's smart enough to step over to avoid running directly into the chest of a big man.
This is what plagues Beal so often when defending these sets and it's something that took Wall some time to get over as well. Young players rarely make the step over, thinking they can just pound their way through the pick in order to recover to the ball handler. But Ariza realizes that's not the optimal way to defend ball screens. He knows he would much rather rely on his length and athleticism to get back in position.
Augustin still has to pick up his dribble, rise up and shoot, and there's no way he'll get the shot off before Ariza gets to him. You just can't defend the pick and roll any better.
There's a reason why Ariza held ball handlers to 37 percent shooting out of pick and rolls, per Synergy Sports Technology. He doesn't have a lot of bulk -- he's listed at just 200 pounds -- but he knows how to slither around to make up for it. And while he sometimes struggles against post-up players, Randy Wittman rarely deviates from his traditional starting lineup, which absolves him of having to deal with bigger players.
For all of Thibodeau's miscues in failing to start Taj Gibson or playing Hinrich extended minutes, he did all he could with the limited resources he had. Washington simply adjusted and used Ariza to weather the storm.
When Augustin went for 25 points, it was Ariza clamping down in the fourth quarter. Washington came back from six down with just under three minutes to go to steal Game 2.
Then, after Dunleavy lit them up for 35 points in Game 3, the Wizards adjusted. They switched off-ball with Beal and Ariza, used their big men to hedge on shooters and raced out to a huge lead.
Wizards don't win this series without Ariza's defense. Yes, Nene was dominant in three of the four games he played in. Yes, Beal and Wall stepped up to the challenge and weren't fazed by the playoff atmosphere.
But this series was won with elite perimeter defense, and the ability to get stops when it mattered most. That has been Ariza's calling card all year long, and he's continued to step up to the challenge.