Arenas Hits the Bull's Eye

Gilbert Arenas hits winning shot
Gilbert Arenas hits the winning shot to save the Wizards in Game 5. The series shifts back to Washington on Friday. (Associated Press)
By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 5, 2005

CHICAGO, May 4 -- For most of the night, Gilbert Arenas couldn't get his shot to fall, so he passed. But with the Washington Wizards on the verge of colossal failure Wednesday night against the Chicago Bulls, he decided to shoot. With 5.2 seconds left, Arenas caught an inbounds pass from Anthony Peeler, dribbled left around Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich and dropped in a 14-foot jumper to give the Wizards a 112-110 victory and help them avoid what would have been one of the monumental collapses in playoff history. "Gil was the person I wanted in that spot," Coach Eddie Jordan said.

Arenas missed 9 of his first 13 shots, but he wasn't worried at the end. "I've been setting up the team the whole night long," he said, "but I'm going to win the game. That's what I do."

Arenas finished with 16 points, 8 assists and 6 rebounds as the Wizards took a 3-2 lead in their best-of-seven series and won a road game in the playoffs for the first time since April 18, 1986, in Philadelphia. Guard Larry Hughes had 33 points and seven assists to lead the Wizards, who had five players score in double figures but nearly crumbled under another of the Bulls' frantic comebacks. "It was a great effort on our part. However, we're not satisfied with the way we closed it out," Jordan said.

The Wizards led, 84-62, with 3 minutes 26 seconds left in the third quarter. As they did in Game 4 -- when they cut a 28-point second-half deficit at MCI Center to just six with 15 seconds left -- the Bulls began to slowly chip away until the Wizards lost their focus and couldn't hit a free throw. They missed six of eight free throws in the final 2:06 and, after Jamison missed two free throws with 25 seconds left, Hinrich knocked down a three-pointer to cut the deficit to two points. Hughes then made just 1 of 2 free throws with 11 seconds left, giving the Wizards a 110-107 lead.

Using a strategy that worked in a regular season overtime win against the Los Angeles Lakers, Jordan had forward Jared Jeffries intentionally foul Hinrich and send him to the line. Hinrich missed the first shot, then the second. When Wizards forward Michael Ruffin tried to get the rebound, it bounced off his leg, rolling right to Hinrich, who passed to Jannero Pargo, who nailed an off-balanced three-pointer to tie the game with Arenas running toward him.

"It was one of those plays," Ruffin said. "When Pargo hit that shot, I was a little disappointed. I feel like I should've had that ball."

Pargo had 10 points in just three minutes, connecting on three three-pointers in the final 39 seconds. "When are you ever going to see that again?" Washington center Brendan Haywood said. "The guy can score, but that's incredible right there. Everything that could go wrong for us, went wrong. And everything that could go right for them, went right -- until that last shot."

Arenas said he knew he was going to go left, but he couldn't get too close because Bulls shot-blocker Tyson Chandler (22 points, 10 rebounds, 2 blocks) was going to approach. Arenas just wanted to get enough separation to get the shot over Hinrich. When he got to the foul line, he stopped and popped as Hinrich and Chandler contested.

Arenas then untucked his shirt and skipped down the court until his teammates mobbed him and wildly jumped up and down while a sellout crowd at United Center stood in shock. The Wizards took their exuberance into the locker room. Some stopped to watch a replay of the shot. Peeler and Jeffries ran shirtless down the tunnel; Peeler laughed, flexing his muscles. Jamison was in front of Peeler, screaming: "It's over. It's over."

"I was talking about the game," Jamison said. "Definitely not the series. But we're going to enjoy this one. I said it before, the team that is able to win on the opponent's floor puts themselves in the driver's seat. We need our crowd to be ridiculous. We need them to be crazy. We know how hard it is to finish off a series. It's going to be tough."

Jamison had 19 points and 10 rebounds, but he went 0 for 4 from the foul line. "My dad [Albert] is going to get me. He says they're free. I have to get them. When I missed the first one, it lingered over to the second one. I put the blame on myself."

Washington hasn't won a playoff series since 1982, when it swept the New Jersey Nets in two games. This franchise hasn't claimed a seven-game series since the Bullets defeated the San Antonio Spurs in the Eastern Conference finals in 1979. But as a sign of their dominance in the past three wins, the Wizards have led all but 1 minute 2 seconds in the past 10 quarters.

With two decisive home victories, the Wizards came to Chicago Wednesday feeling confident that they wouldn't be overwhelmed, that they would find the comfort zone. In the same building where they were shaken and stirred for two losses just a week ago, the Wizards played so well that the home crowd actually began to boo the Bulls in the second half.

The Wizards may not have to worry about coming back to Chicago until next season because they will have an opportunity to close out the series in Game 6 on Friday at home, where they have won 10 consecutive games against the Bulls. "We don't want to come back" to Chicago, Arenas said. "This doesn't mean nothing if we have to come back."

Jordan said that forward Kwame Brown's suspension wouldn't serve as a distraction for his team. If it was, it certainly didn't show. The Wizards are focused on something bigger. "I definitely feel we can close out this series," Haywood said. "We have to ride this emotional wave into Game 6."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company