By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 6, 2006
Gilbert Arenas planned on taking a week off whenever the Washington Wizards' season ended, but at some point this morning or later this afternoon, Arenas will be at the team's practice facility in the bowels of Verizon Center, twirling the ball around his waist three times, squatting and firing.
It's his trademark free throw motion, one that the self-appointed zero and gym rat has practiced over and over again at odd hours of the night, one that betrayed him in the final seconds of the Wizards' biggest game of the season.
Always in search of the next source of motivation, Arenas found it after his two missed free throws with 15 seconds left -- and Cleveland's just-dusted-off-the shelf Damon Jones's subsequent game-winning jumper -- led to the Wizards' season-ending, 114-113 loss in overtime.
The Wizards didn't lose the game, and the series in six games, simply because Arenas missed two free throws. And they wouldn't have even been in the game if not for Arenas's 36 points and unconscionable 31-foot jumper to force the extra period, but Arenas is one to take even regular season losses hard, using them as fuel for his next late-night workout. This will sting for an entire summer -- at least.
"You feel you let your city down," Arenas said. "I know I'm going to be back in the gym [today]. I told the trainer I'll be back. I've got to work on those free throws again."
The Wizards were nursing a one-point lead when Cavaliers guard Larry Hughes fouled Arenas, sending his friend to the free throw line. Arenas's first attempt bounded around the rim and he dropped his head in disbelief. Cavaliers star LeBron James walked up to him afterward, patted him on the chest and told him, "If you miss both of those free throws, the game is over."
Arenas didn't even acknowledge James, but he still looked distraught as he prepared to take his second shot -- which was even more off, clanking off the back of the rim. "That's something I would say," Arenas said, laughing about James's attempt to jinx him. "An 80 percent free throw shooter and you miss two. The basketball gods weren't with us in this series. We lose three games to game-winning shots."
Just two nights before in Game 5, Arenas had given the Wizards a one-point lead by draining two free throws with 3.6 seconds remaining -- only to watch James catch the ball in the left corner, do a tight-rope act along the baseline and roll in the game-winning bucket. James robbed Arenas of his chance to take on the moniker "Mr. Game 5." With two missed free throws, Arenas practically surrendered any chance of being named "Mr. Game 6."
Arenas certainly had his opportunity. With the Wizards trailing 107-104 with 9.9 seconds left, Arenas caught the ball and stared down Cavaliers guard Flip Murray, who gave about five feet of space to operate. Arenas didn't even think, he pulled the trigger, knocking down a shot that had nearly everyone in the building stunned. "He shot it from the ESPN booth," James said.
This series will be remembered as the coming-out party for the wunderkind, who averaged 35.6 points as the nation bared "witness." But Arenas was right there with James for six games, almost basket for basket, as he averaged 34 points, proving that if he isn't at least in the same class, he's certainly in the same school.
"I do not have any words for Gilbert Arenas. I don't know what you do with the guy," Cavaliers Coach Mike Brown said. "You just have to hope and pray he misses. Trust me, half of the time that I was on the sidelines pacing, I was hoping and praying that he would miss the next shot."
Brown's prayers came true with Arenas on the free throw line at the end of Game 6. The basketball gods, indeed, were not with Arenas and the Wizards.
"I can't let these two free throws dictate the rest of my career," Arenas said. "It's something I'll take into the summer and use as motivation. I'm going to be in plenty of situations where I get that chance to redeem myself."