Driven After Distraction
He slept in the lounge outside of the practice gym some nights, the better to wake up and start shooting immediately. He was preoccupied for a while with the referees and each person's pattern of officiating games. He wanted to exact revenge from any coach or executive who passed him over in the NBA draft or had anything to do with leaving him off the Team USA World Championships squad.
After his obsessions distracted him for the first month of a season that began with disappointment, Gilbert Arenas has managed to focus all that energy on beating whatever team is in front of the Washington Wizards that night. And if they can win a fifth straight game tonight, at home against the Orlando Magic, Arenas will be able to do something that Moses Malone, Bernard King, Chris Webber and even Michael Jordan were unable to do: put the Washington basketball franchise in first place after Christmas.
After a 4-9 start during which Arenas was erratic and without his usual blast-furnace energy, the Wizards have won 12 of 15. After averaging 26 points on 39 percent shooting in November, Arenas has averaged 35 points on 49 percent shooting in December. His 60 points against the Lakers in Los Angeles on Dec. 17 and his 54 against the Suns in Phoenix five days later enabled Arenas to join Jordan and Kobe Bryant as the only players the last 30 years to score 60 and 50 in the same week.
Arenas is playing at a level now that suggests he can lead his team into serious contention, at least in the Eastern Conference. "I've got a teammate in Caron Butler who is scoring 20 a night and a teammate in Antawn Jamison who is scoring 20 a night and getting close to 10 rebounds a game," Arenas said. "Who else has that on his team? I'm grateful Antawn and Caron will fit their games around the way I play."
As Arenas suggests, the contributions are coming from just about everywhere. Brendan Haywood is averaging essentially a double-double as a starter. Butler has blossomed into a complete player, perhaps an all-star. Antonio Daniels leads the NBA with an assists-to-turnover ratio of 4 to 1. DeShawn Stevenson, a defensive specialist earning the league minimum salary, is making nearly 52 percent of his three-point shots. Jamison, in his usual quiet do-what-the-coach-asks manner, has averaged 21 points and nine rebounds per game in December.
Still, all of these elements revolve around Arenas, who is in the midst of the greatest scoring binge of his career, one that finds him averaging 30 points per game (third in the NBA behind Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson), leading the Wizards into this match for first place against Orlando. "I'm not going to scoreboard-watch in December," Arenas said. "It's too early . . . way too early for that."
But it wasn't too early to put aside his self-created distractions, which were driven by his desperation to win, but were nonetheless unproductive until he got a grip on everything.
"I put so much into it after Team USA cut me," Arenas said, "I was literally living in the gym. I was in there beating myself up. I know it now. I was putting too much pressure on myself, but I wanted it so bad. . . .
"I was in the gym too much. The trainer would say, 'Gil, you've already had a long summer. Get out of here.' And I would sleep right outside the practice gym. The way I am, I would judge myself based on my performance with Team USA. So I felt I wasn't good enough. I was questioning myself. You know, stuff starts running through your head. I was feeling, 'I'm not even playing. I'm sitting and the guys out there aren't even Kobe and T-Mac. There's no Tim Duncan or Kevin Garnett out there.' "
So he worked even more fanatically than usual, and it backfired. . . . at least in the short term. "When I started the season, it felt like I'd played 80 games already," he said. "I had beaten myself up physically working so much. I wanted to prove too much to everybody [at Team USA] that they'd made a mistake."
Arenas is certainly capable of juggling several obsessions. He had convinced himself that he could study the officials in such a way he could adjust his game to each referee's style to maximize the number of calls he would get. "I was complaining about calls, complaining about non-calls. I had no confidence on the road. One night, [referee] Jack Nies said, 'Gil, don't worry about us. . . . just play like you used to play.' We were on the way back home after losing in Chicago [on Dec. 2] and I said, 'Okay, that's enough. That's it. I'm done worrying about calls.' "
The Wizards are 10-2 since that loss in Chicago. And unlike long runs recently by the Suns and Bulls in which each beat only a couple of winning teams, the Wizards have had five impressive victories in the 12-3 run, especially those against the Mavericks and Suns which stopped winning streaks of 12 and 15 games, respectively. The Wizards beat the Lakers with Kobe playing a great game and Denver with Anthony having a big night before his suspension.
Asked about the string of impressive performances, Arenas said, "If you took my name off my numbers and just looked at the numbers, you'd think they were from a major superstar." Arenas, whose appeal has grown in part because he never appears to take himself seriously, began to laugh. True enough, the recent great games against the Mavericks, Lakers and Suns have led to a wider national awareness of Arenas and the Wizards and how entertaining they are to watch.
The way Arenas plays has caught the attention of players and coaches on every level, including the University of Maryland's Gary Williams. "I watch him almost every game and I tell our players to watch him every chance they have," Williams said. "He's like a running back, the way he gets low into almost a three-point stance. If you don't retreat, he's going by you and if you do, he'll pull up and shoot it. He's just great to watch."
Of course, the thing the major superstars do beyond the numbers is put their teams in first place for long stretches, sometimes the entire season. And no pro player has been able to do that around here for nearly 30 years, since Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes led the way. In today's dreadful Eastern Conference, where defending champ Miami is playing without Shaq for perhaps several more weeks and where nobody in the Atlantic Division is .500, Arenas has a legitimate chance to lead the Wizards to a division title in the Southeast.
The question for and about the Wizards is the same week after week: Can they play enough defense and be tough enough to win anything, even a division? They're averaging 107.5 points per game, which leads the Eastern Conference and is third in the NBA (behind only Phoenix and Denver). But they also allow 106 points per game.
Arenas watches enough '80s and '90s NBA to know that wouldn't have cut it throughout most of the league's modern history. However, times have changed.
"The days of defenses dominating the whole game, or an entire season, that's dead," Arenas said. "People talk about Bruce Bowen being a dirty player and complaining about him putting his feet under them when they land. Hey, that's nothing compared to the clotheslining and undercutting guys did in the 1980s. But these rules throw that stuff out and make it possible for an offensive team to thrive now. It's a style I know I want to play."