Washington Wizards point guard Gilbert Arenas smiled and skipped along the sideline, tight-rope style, as he high-fived about 15 fans in the expensive seats at MCI Center last night. Players on the bench were doubling over in laughter and applauding after reserve forward Michael Ruffin dunked and hung on the rim.
Even Coach Eddie Jordan reluctantly had to crack a smile in the third quarter after reserve guard Steve Blake nailed a three-pointer while Jordan screamed for him to hold the ball. It was good to be back home.
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Playing their first game since a forgettable three-game road trip before the all-star break, the Wizards opened the second half of the season with some fun, some laughter and a 93-83 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies before 15,705.
"We wanted to start the second half of the season off right," Blake said after the Wizards improved to 8-2 at home against Western Conference teams. "It was a great win for us."
Arenas and forward Antawn Jamison, the only players on either team to participate in Sunday's All-Star Game, helped the Wizards (31-22) claim their fifth win in a row -- and 13th in the past 15 games -- at home. Arenas had his first double-double of the season with 30 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists. Jamison had his 21st double-double of the season with 27 points and 10 rebounds.
"That's the responsibility they know they have," Jordan said. "They have to carry us. There are no nights off for them."
The Wizards were looking to recover from a horrendous defensive performance in their previous three games. In those games, they allowed Detroit, New Orleans and Houston to shoot a combined 53.4 percent. Last night the Wizards held the short-handed Grizzlies to 34.6 percent shooting.
The Wizards are 17-2 this season when holding an opponent to less than 100 points.
"I was very disappointed with the last three games before the break," Jamison said. "That's unacceptable. We just kind of went through the motions, but that's not the sign of a team that's trying to make it to the playoffs. We took a giant step back before the break, but I think now we've got an important stretch coming up and we've got to find a way to get back to that activity and energy we had."
After both teams played the first half as if they were still on vacation, the Wizards blew the game open in the third quarter, forcing seven turnovers and outscoring the Grizzlies 30-17. Center Brendan Haywood tied his career high with three steals in the period and Arenas provided the offensive spark, scoring 13 points, including 7-of-7 shooting from the free throw line.
"I just wanted to do whatever was necessary for us to pull away," said Arenas, who made all 13 of his free throws last night.
With 14 seconds left in the third quarter, Jordan began yelling for the Wizards to hold the ball for the last shot, but Blake fired a three-pointer. Jordan put his hands on his head and yelled "No!" as the ball splashed through the net to give the Wizards a 72-61 lead.
"What better look would we have gotten if we held for the last shot?" said Blake, who scored a season-high nine points. "If someone is going to leave me that wide open, I can't help but take it."
"It's a players' league," Jordan said with a smile. "Coaches are overrated."
This was the first meeting for the teams since the Wizards' season-opening, 103-91 win in Memphis, when they came back from a 19-point first-half deficit despite having just eight players available. The teams practically swapped positions for the rematch as the Grizzlies (30-24) came to Washington without leading scorer Pau Gasol (foot injury) and starters Stromile Swift (ankle sprain) and James Posey (Achilles' tendon strain).
The Wizards even took a 19-point lead in this game, but with 9 minutes 32 seconds left, there was no chance for a miracle comeback by the Grizzlies, who are 25-13 since Coach Mike Fratello replaced Hubie Brown in December.
The Wizards were close to full strength after activating Kwame Brown and Larry Hughes from the injured list. Hughes did not play, opting to take his time while recovering from a broken right thumb. Brown scored two points with three assists in 10 minutes in his first action since Jan. 6.