A Stumble Instead of the Next Step

By Mike Wise
Saturday, May 6, 2006

In a way, the ending they scripted for themselves was apropos. The Wizards lost another game they should have won, making that 33 or so on the season and three alone in this riveting, crazy series that ended in six games last night before the team's absolutely gutted and dejected legions.

The truth about the District's basketball team: LeBron's Young Guns take it, 4 games to 2, over Gilbert and the Giveaways.

The immediate pain was obvious: The Wizards lost the opportunity to force the franchise's first Game 7 since 1979 with yet another last-second loss, a resilient but ultimately unsuccessful effort that denied them a shot to meet the Detroit Pistons, the league's best team, in the second round.

Long-term, what Eddie Jordan's club failed to do last night at the throaty Verizon Center bordered on seminal.

This was the first elimination game of the Gilbert Arenas era, the first real measurement of how far this franchise has come post-Michael Jordan.

Miami's sweep in the second round a year ago didn't count because there was never a moment when the Wizards appeared like they could win the series. As riveting and historical as the Chicago series was, the Bulls never had a chance to close the Wizards out in that six-game series.

LeBron James's team did have that chance. They closed like the Wizards could not in Games 3, 5 and 6.

Because so much urgency went into prolonging the season, Game 6 should have been a significant step in building a contender. The Wizards did not fold, but they led 83-75 late in the fourth quarter and had numerous opportunities to put away the game in overtime. Arenas, their star, could not, careening two free throws off the rim in the final seconds.

Argue all you want that Arenas finally built a national profile for himself the past two weeks. You'll get no push-back here. He made it clear he is one of the league's top 15 players. It says here he is probably the 10th or 11th best.

Scoring in flurries, he averaged nearly 34 points per game coming into Game 6. And then there was the Shot That Was Supposed to Sink Cleveland, a 31-foot three-pointer that forced the extra period.

Arenas made nearly ever big shot he needed to in the fourth quarter. Arenas was good enough that Eastern Conference coaches should be ashamed for leaving him off their all-star ballots. But he missed his final two free throws of the season, the most important free throws of his career. Karl Malone never lived down the free throws he missed against Chicago in the 1997 Finals.

"The basketball gods weren't with us in this series," Arenas said afterward.

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