Settling Scores

By Michael Wilbon
Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The mere mention of Gilbert Arenas's name brought a smile to the face of Phoenix Suns Coach Mike D'Antoni. It was only a month ago that Arenas scored 54 points in Phoenix to beat the Suns, breaking their 15-game winning streak and making the Wizards the only Eastern Conference team to beat the Suns in 17 games this season. The rematch is tonight, and folks around the league are wondering if Arenas is riling himself up for another Fiddy, if he'll try to drop one on D'Antoni, one of the assistants for Team USA that cut Arenas loose in the summer and inspired something of a revenge tour.

"Make sure you tell Gilbert I had nothing to do with that," D'Antoni said, breaking into laughter. "Tell him that was Mike Krzyzewski and Nate McMillan. . . . I had nothing to do with that. Gilbert's a good guy."

D'Antoni will be pleased to know what Arenas said yesterday: "I already did what I said I was going to do to them. The next team is Portland [Feb. 11]," which is coached by McMillan.

D'Antoni told the Associated Press: "I can't wait to see what he does against Duke. He's going to kill Duke."

D'Antoni and the Suns come to Washington with another long winning streak, 13 games, that the Wizards would like to break in a matchup that could be pure run-and-shoot theater. The Suns come in with the second-best record in the NBA (32-8), the second-longest winning streak in the league this season, an MVP candidate in reigning two-time MVP Steve Nash, and probably the comeback player of the year in Amare Stoudemire.

The Wizards counter with the team's longest home-court winning streak in 10 years (10 games), their own MVP hopeful in Arenas, the player of the week in Caron Butler, the best record in the Eastern Conference (tied with Cleveland), and the ability to play effectively at nearly the same warp speed that has made the Suns the most entertaining team in basketball the last two years.

The Suns lead the NBA in scoring with 111 points per game; the Wizards are second at 107.

The maddening thing about the Wizards is they simply don't come to play against the league's bottom feeders. In recent days they've lost to the injury-decimated Hornets, which simply should not happen, and barely beat the Knicks and Celtics. But the Wizards are at their best against the league's best, which is why they've been able to beat the Mavericks, Lakers, Suns and Jazz.

Asked the other day about the Wizards and their victories against Dallas and Phoenix, Mavericks guard Jason Terry said: "They might be the only team in the Eastern Conference that consistently runs with the best teams in the west and win. Part of it is personnel. Gilbert, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison give the Wizards a good small unit that can run and shoot. And when you're playing the Suns, it's a whole different game. They're a team that's willing, literally, to trade you two points at your end for three at the other end. The Suns' attitude is, 'Okay, you got be me, but I'm not going to foul you. I'll just come right back down and hit you with a three.'

"Most teams can deviate from their systems a little bit," Terry said. "But if you get really outside of your system against the Suns you're in big trouble. Some of it's having the great players they have. Some of it's Mike D'Antoni's system. They spread the floor, and if you've got a big four [power forward] or a big five [center] out there it's difficult."

The Wizards, just as Terry suggested, might have to go small for stretches against the Suns tonight, but will still be all right if Arenas is playing as well as he did last month against the Suns. Terry, like Arenas, played his college basketball at the University of Arizona. Terry even played host to Arenas on his recruiting visit. "Gilbert comes from humble beginnings," Terry said, "and I've known for a long time that his thing is to try and prove somebody wrong every single night."

It's worked beautifully for Arenas so far, especially this season. Even so, Arenas isn't having any better run than Nash, who is threatening to become the first player since 1990-91 to average 19 points and 11 assists per game. Nash, Arenas says, is the MVP. "If it ended today," Arenas said, "he's the MVP, period."

The Suns probably have the best six-man rotation in the NBA in Nash, Stoudemire, Shawn Marion, Raja Bell, Boris Diaw and sixth man Leandro Barbosa. The only reason Butler isn't the most underappreciated player in the league is because Marion is. D'Antoni has to be the most underappreciated coach in the league. Nash puts the brakes on any conversation about how good the Suns are right now, pointing out that of the Suns' eight losses five have been to Dallas (twice), Utah (twice) and San Antonio.

Still, the numbing stat of the season so far is that the Suns have won 29 of their last 31 games. In that time, only the Mother Nature-assisted loss to the Wizards (following the snowstorm that trapped the Suns in Denver) and Dirk Nowitzki's buzzer-beater in Dallas on Dec. 28 have prevented Phoenix from winning an unspeakable 31 straight games. The league record is 33 straight by Wilt's Lakers in 1972.

The question of whether the Suns play enough defense to go one step deeper into the playoffs seems to be a topic for May-June. It's certainly not an issue for tonight, since the Wizards undoubtedly think they can race with the Suns and not get burned.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company