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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.

He telephoned a friend of mine in New York who wrote that Arenas had not bothered to show up until the fourth quarter against the Knicks last month. "I had 10 points and five rebounds in the first quarter and then I got in foul trouble," he told the writer. My friend was impressed that a player actually cared enough to call and complain. But he also wondered why a player of Arenas's stature would worry about such trivial things.

Arenas has been analyzing video of referees, saying he hopes to adjust his game to the way certain officials call games. On one hand, Arenas can't be faulted for his commitment to giving himself every possible advantage. On the other, shouldn't the referees start adjusting their calls to him? He's the one soon to be a three-time all-star, voted one of the top 15 players in the game.

"I don't sit at home and watch referees," said Dirk Nowitzki, when told of Arenas's ref scouting. "That would take it a little too far." Nowitzki said he learned a harsh lesson in last June's NBA Finals, when his franchise all but complained itself out of a title.

"That's a battle you can't win," he said. "That's something you have to leave alone and let take care of itself."

Down deep, I think Arenas wonders if Dwyane Wade, James, Carmelo Anthony and even Kobe Bryant would have gotten calls that he does not.

His elite contemporaries at the guard position have all blown up in one way or another that Arenas has still not. D. Wade led Miami to the title and instantly became the baby-faced assassin of the league. 'Melo was the darling of the U.S. national team during the summer. LeBron has gotten so large he's now playing more on-screen characters than Eddie Murphy in "Coming to America." And Kobe, on the court, is still Kobe -- lethal as ever with the ball in his hands.

I don't think Arenas is jealous of their success. But I think he wonders when all that glory is going to come his way and what's he going to have to give to get it. I think it consumes him in an unhealthy way at times, and I think it occasionally manifests itself on the court.

That's why it was good to see him getting back to what he does best last night. Pulling up from anywhere on the floor, leaving bounce passes on the break so Butler can maliciously dunk them home. Feeling the game, not analyzing it. Not worrying what others think about him and whether he was being afforded the same respect as his more-famous peers.

Ed Tapscott, the longtime NBA personnel man and now a Wizards analyst with Comcast, once telephoned former Texas coach Tom Penders. Tapscott, then the vice president of player personnel for the Knicks, wanted the lowdown on a certain Longhorns player.

"He told me, 'The more he's thinkin', the more he's stinkin'," Tapscott said last night. "That summed it up perfect. When you're struggling, simplify."

Those are words Gilbert Arenas should hang on to this season, as his responsibility for the Wizards increases and his stature leaguewide grows.

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