Empty Your Mind, Fill the Basket

By Mike Wise
Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Gilbert Arenas is an instinctual player, a baller who experiences the game more than he thinks and plays it. His game is a product of flow and rhythm, not footwork and mechanics. When he's feeling it, really feeling it like last night against Dallas, there are few basketball players in the world who can match him offensively.

He didn't have any mental clutter against the Mavericks; he just shot. And shot. He understood the angles, the trajectory he would need to bank in a 14-footer, even using the glass for a three-pointer at the outset of the third quarter. When the hottest team in the NBA had crawled from 31 points down to within seven points at the end, it was Arenas who closed the door on the defending Western Conference champions with jumpers and free throws.

By the time he and the Wizards walked off Verizon Center's court with their most impressive victory of the season, Arenas had 38 points, eight assists and the confidence of the player who almost outdueled LeBron James in the first round of the playoffs.

Gone was the spotty player averaging 17.6 points per game and shooting just 28 percent in Washington's awful 0-8 start on the road, the guy whose body language and focus -- or lack thereof -- every one of his teammates feeds off of in one way or another. Back was the economy of movement, the energy he needs in order for his team to rebound from its disappointing 7-10 start. Arenas was fighting the Mavericks last night, not himself.

"I don't know what it is, I think I try to manage the game on the road -- set people up and do things I don't normally do," Arenas said after the Wizards ended Dallas's 12-game winning streak. "I'm an open-court player and for some reason we haven't been able to get out and go on the road as much."

And at home, where the Wizards are 7-2?

"When I'm at home, I'm free," he said. "I'm like a bird. I just go."

There are myriad reasons for Washington's poor start. Darius Songaila, their offseason pickup who was supposed to guard power forwards, is out with a back injury. So several of the Wizards, including Caron Butler and reserve Jarvis Hayes, have to play out of position defensively.

Andray Blatche has not developed like the club thought he would. The kid is still at least a year away from seeing important minutes. Makes you wonder why Oleksiy Pecherov, the 18th pick in the draft, was allowed to stay in the Ukraine and play. He's just 20 years old, but surely a 7-footer who can shoot the bomb with aplomb and rebound could be used off the bench, which is one of Wizards's weakest assets at the moment.

And that means even more pressure on an established star like Arenas to raise his game to otherworldly levels, more responsibility and headaches for a player now required to lead.

But when his mind starts getting too involved, when the referees become the object of his ire -- and the all-star guard becomes convinced everybody and their brother are out to do him wrong -- Arenas gets away from the qualities that make him unguardable and a pleasure to play with.

You heard the saying, "The most dangerous seven inches in the world is between your ears?" At times this season, that's been Arenas.

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