Gilbert Arenas’s season ended on the same court where his “new beginning” began. The Atlanta Hawks eliminated the Orlando Magic from the playoffs on Thursday with an 84-81 victory at Philips Arena, allowing Arenas to close the chapter on a difficult season that saw him traded from the town where he had become a star, deal with some personal and professional strife, and fall well short of his task of helping Dwight Howard get back to the NBA Finals.
Nearly four months after he made his debut — wearing the number of his favorite player as a kid, Penny Hardaway — in a road loss against the Hawks, Arenas spent the final possession of Game 6 in a position with which he had grown all too familiar and uncomfortable in Orlando — as a spectator. He was on the bench instead of the floor, as J.J. Redick missed a wide open, potentially tying three-pointer and Jason Richardson had an off-balance attempt blocked in the corner by Atlanta’s Josh Smith. Arenas had just six points, four rebounds and two assists in 18 minutes as his long-awaited return to the postseason ended meekly, with him exiting from the first round for the third time in as many appearances.
Arenas considered his trade to the Magic as “the light” at the end of a dark tunnel, but it was just a flare that quickly fizzled. He exchanged his problems in Washington for another round of woes in Orlando, where the pressures went far beyond just reaching the playoffs. Carrying a salary-cap inhaling contract became more burdensome, and he struggled handling the expectations to deliver, to rediscover that old magic (so to speak) on more nights than not. He also dealt with an ugly, extremely public breakup with his longtime girlfriend and mother of his children.
Arenas arrived with Jason Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu and Earl Clark in a roster makeover that resulted in the Magic taking a serious step back after reaching the Eastern Conference finals the past two seasons and the NBA Finals in 2009. The first-round flameout raises doubts about Howard’s future in Orlando, with him eligible to become a free agent in the summer of 2012.
Arenas was hardly the only problem in Orlando — the Magic collectively shot horribly from three-point range the entire series, placing way too much weight on Howard’s shoulders — and there is no guarantee that they wouldn’t have had the same fate had they kept Rashard Lewis, with Lewis’s season ending in March because of complications in his right knee. But Arenas absorbed considerable criticism in his new city since he’s owed $60 million over the next three years and played poorly after arriving in a deal for Lewis on Dec. 18.
He averaged just 8 points on 34.4 percent shooting in 49 regular games, 2 starts, with the Magic — a dramatic decline from his play this season in Washington, where he averaged 17.3 points in 21 games, 14 starts, for the Wizards.
Coach Flip Saunders and his staff realized pretty early in training camp that Arenas’s skills were diminishing on both ends of the floor, before eventually dealing him. But the drop in production was disconcerting and startling, considering Arenas was still relatively productive — though not especially efficient — this season in Washington.
Magic General Manager Otis Smith, Arenas’s longtime mentor and friend, had hoped that a change of scenery could awaken the “sleeping giant” inside Arenas. But by the end of the season, Arenas hadn’t only become the forgotten man in Orlando; he was the neglected one.
Arenas never had a coach like Stan Van Gundy and Van Gundy never had a player like Arenas. The merger has almost been to the detriment of both since they don’t appear to like each other. In the time since Smith decided to deal for Arenas, Van Gundy can’t help but look more grumpy than usual and Arenas can’t help but complain about how his limited production was largely the result of limited opportunities.
Van Gundy wanted Arenas to conform to a rigid style of play that was unfamiliar to a free-wheeler and Arenas was unwilling, or unable, to adjust. Arenas needed freedom — something Eric Musselman, Eddie Jordan and Flip Saunders gave him — but Van Gundy is extremely meticulous. He doesn’t handle unpredictability and improvisation very well. Thus, he and Arenas are an odd fit
Van Gundy didn’t have much confidence in Arenas and Arenas rarely gave him reason to think otherwise. An Eastern Conference scout told me recently that he wasn’t surprised by Arenas’s struggles in Orlando, noting that the most obvious sign of trouble was Arenas’s body and added that Arenas needs to lose some weight to prove that he is truly committed to being a great, or even good, player again.
Arenas did, however, have a turn-back-the-clock performance in a Game 4 loss, when he pulled off the most unlikely 20-point outburst of the postseason. He had scored eight total points in his first two games, got benched in the second half of Game 2, and didn’t even see the court in Orlando’s Game 3 loss, which admittedly “hurt” him. But with Jason Richardson serving a suspension for slapping Zaza Pachulia, Van Gundy called on Arenas and Arenas only needed 22 minutes to lead the Magic back into a game that every player not named Howard had seemed to check out of — even though it was like watching footage of some of his past high-scoring playoff games with the Wizards played back in slow motion.
How unlikely was it? His retro game on Sunday was the first time Arenas had scored at least 20 points in a playoff since Game 1 of the Wizards’ first-round series against the Cleveland in 2008, when he came off the bench and scored 24 points in 28 minutes. Arenas had little lift and little initial burst against the Hawks, but he was incredibly effective attacking the basket and refused to settle for those lazy, flatfooted jumpers that he has come to rely upon. And, when the Hawks finally decided to not just give him a clear path to the lane, Arenas threw a pretty over-the-shoulder lob to Howard for a two-handed dunk. Arenas was back, for one night at least.
It was unfair to expect — or even ask for — a repeat performance. It never came. And now Arenas and the Magic are gone.