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For Arenas, the Clothes Really Do Make the Man

By Mike Wise
Monday, May 1, 2006

With the legend of LeBron growing exponentially and the myth of Washington having the better team in this series about shattered, Gilbert Arenas found solace in the only force of the universe that mattered to him at halftime: superstition.

That's right. Arenas, mired in a slump that would have him miss 11 of his first 14 shots, was convinced his uniform was at fault. He completely undressed, head to toe, at halftime and tried to buck any false notions or fallacies.

"I changed my shoes, my shorts, my shirt, my tights, everything," Arenas said. "That first uniform was bad luck for me."

He put on new kicks. New jersey. New shirt. New tights.

New game.

His game.

He stole it from James and the Cleveland Cavaliers last night at Verizon Center, took it while they were sleeping in the fourth quarter. When the most defining moment of the Wizards' maddeningly inconsistent season was done, Arenas had outshot and outperformed another young gun, the 21-year-old they call the Chosen One.

Nike's main man. The Golden Child. LeBron James, the player who is not only entrusted with saving a crestfallen sports town from its own self-loathing but also an entire league in need of a torchbearer.

After living off free throws and deep three-pointers that resuscitated a lethargic Sunday night crowd, after erupting for 28 second-half points, Arenas was essentially asked if it was psychologically tough to watch James detonate for 25 first-half points -- basically take the game over -- while Washington's resident all-star chipped orange paint off the rim.

"This is LeBron's show, you know," Arenas said through a babykins smile. "We're all just -- we're just all witnesses."

The media room busted up laughing. Arenas had taken a light-hearted poke at Nike's ad campaign, taken a little shot at the only player in this first-round series anyone seems to be watching. That was Arenas's way of letting the masses know: "I can play, too."

From the beginning of this series, the main concern the Wizards' organization had about Arenas was whether he was going to get caught up in the hype. Privately, there was real concern that Arenas would turn this into a game of one-upsmanship. Whatever LeBron could do, he would have to prove he could do better.

Inevitably, when your point guard thinks that way -- gets caught up in a game at the park rather than a pulsating playoff thriller -- your team is toast. If Arenas's ego got the better of him, the Wizards would have a much harder time sending this series back to Cleveland tied.

Through shooting slumps and two losses, Gilbert Arenas has not let that happen.

"This has always been about the Washington Wizards versus the Cleveland Cavaliers for me," he said.

Just the same, another superstar emerged again in Game 4, another antidote to stop this from becoming all LeBron, all the time.

Arenas went to the line 10 times in the fourth quarter, 17 times overall. (Whatever seed Eddie Jordan believed he was planting when he said that Arenas did not receive the calls James did on Saturday afternoon, well, the man can garden.)

"He got to the basket, he shot 17 free throws during the course of the game," said Larry Hughes, who fouled out trying to stop Arenas. "That's enough to get you going."

Forget the flurry of points, the drives and the spot-up jumpers. Remember what Arenas looked like with 3 minutes 22 seconds remaining, when he was about to put Cleveland's arm behind its back and make it cry, "Uncle."

He dropped in a three-pointer at that juncture, which sent the lead to nine points and Verizon Center toward a state of pandemonium. After he hit it, he leaned all the way back, his right arm locked in an extended follow-through, his right hand arched in Walk-Like-An-Egyptian form.

He admired that three-point bomb the way David Ortiz admires a baseball disappearing into the stratosphere. With good reason. That was the exact spot he missed from at the buzzer on Friday night. He got another look and delivered, just like he said he would. He pumped life back into a team and an arena, most of whose patrons believed the season was very close to being done until Arenas began squaring up.

All net. All even.

"He's the best pure scorer I've ever played with," said Calvin Booth, the veteran reserve center on the Wizards. Booth has played with Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, Ray Allen, Mitch Richmond and Gary Payton. "He still has a lot of work to do to become the best player I've ever played with, but Gilbert has a chance. He's that good."

The timing was everything last night.

Falling behind three games to one in a best-of-seven series is pretty much a death knell in the NBA. Just seven teams have recovered to win after falling behind 3-1, and only one team in the first round. The Wizards were about to put themselves in that hole.

Then Gilbert happened. The superstitious superstar got religion at halftime, and we all became witness to the self-professed comeback kid's big night. Finally, no? An NBA player not interested in kneeling at LeBron's locker.

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