By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 6, 2007
A hush fell over the crowd at Verizon Center on Wednesday night after Charlotte Bobcats forward Gerald Wallace crashed into Washington Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas. Yesterday, the fans' worst fears were realized when the three-time all-star underwent arthroscopic surgery to repair a torn lateral meniscus in his left knee, effectively ending a season that had started with lofty goals.
The two-to-three month timetable for a possible return means that Arenas, the league's fourth-leading scorer (28.8 points per game), will miss the final eight games of the regular season and any playoff run. The Wizards (39-35) are in sixth place in the Eastern Conference and play the Cleveland Cavaliers tonight at Verizon Center. The team can clinch a third consecutive playoff appearance with a victory.
The Wizards already were without all-star forward Caron Butler, who broke a bone in his right hand during Sunday's win at Milwaukee and is out at least six weeks. Butler said he hopes to return at some point during the playoffs, but that would require a push to at least the second round and most likely the conference finals.
Antonio Daniels, who finished with 18 points and a career-high 17 assists during Wednesday's 108-100 loss to the Bobcats, will start in place of Arenas, while second-year guard Donell Taylor, who has been active for only 40 of 74 games, will also see action at point guard.
"It's going to be a totally different team," said guard DeShawn Stevenson, who along with Arenas had been the only player to start each game this season before Wednesday night. "We lost a guy who scores 30 points a game [Arenas] and we lost a guy who averages 20 points and eight rebounds a game [Butler], so we're going to have to share the ball and play great defense."
Writing for his blog at NBA.com, Arenas appeared to be in good spirits following yesterday's surgery, which was performed by team physician Marc Connell at Sibley Memorial Hospital.
"I'm good," Arenas wrote. "I made everyone laugh today at the hospital. They enjoyed my company."
Arenas's injury is just the latest setback for a team that was flying high earlier in the season and reached the top of the conference standings with a win at Orlando on Jan. 19. Despite a knee injury that forced forward Antawn Jamison to miss 12 games, the Wizards improved to a season-best 31-21 with a win over Sacramento on Feb. 22.
Arenas, Butler, Coach Eddie Jordan and his staff all represented the Eastern Conference at All-Star Weekend in Las Vegas in February. And the Wizards appeared to have the juice needed to bypass the struggling Miami Heat in the Southeast Division and perhaps reach the NBA Finals.
However, the season has rapidly gone downhill since the win over Sacramento on Feb. 22. First, Butler missed three games with lower back spasms, and the team lost all three games. Butler later missed six games with a left knee contusion, during which the team went 2-4.
The team also suffered a string of stinging losses to Atlanta, New York, Miami, Portland and, most recently, Toronto.
Wednesday's loss dropped the Wizards to 8-14 since the win over Sacramento. Barring a total collapse by the Wizards and late pushes by the seventh-place New Jersey Nets (35-39) or the eighth-place Orlando Magic (34-41), Washington is not likely to drop any further than the sixth seed. That would set up a first-round playoff meeting with Toronto (42-33), Miami (40-34) or Cleveland (45-30).
If the season ended today, the Wizards would face Toronto, and the third-seeded Raptors would hold home-court advantage. Jordan, though clearly disappointed about losing his best player, talked about salvaging something from a season that appears to be steadily slipping away.
"I move right on to what we have to do to overcome it," Jordan said. "How do we play to our strengths? That has to be our thought process."
Arenas and Butler have accounted for 42.8 percent of the team's scoring, Butler ranked second in the league in steals (2.13 per game) and Arenas has earned a reputation as one of the game's most clutch players.
This season, Arenas made game-winning shots in wins over Milwaukee, Utah and Seattle and also made three free throws that clinched a win over Golden State. The team has gone 2-7 without Butler.
"We cannot rely on Gilbert and Caron with their terrific talents to break down defenses, make correct reads and make big plays but we have enough size and we have enough able bodies to do some certain things," Jordan said. "We will switch some things, we will open up the floor at times and then we will slow the game down a little bit."
Jordan and his staff will lean heavily on second-leading scorer and leading rebounder Jamison; center Etan Thomas, who is coming off back-to-back strong games against Charlotte; forward Darius Songaila, who has played strong since missing the first 45 games with a lower back injury; and players such as Daniels, Jarvis Hayes, Roger Mason and Andray Blatche, who is expected to return from his own left knee injury late next week.
"It's not going to be just one guy making up for Gilbert," said Daniels, who will be a regular starter again for the first time since he opened 32 of 71 games with Seattle during the 2003-2004 season. "It has to be everybody chipping in with what they do best. Don't do more than you can do. Just come out and fill your role. We have some talented veterans on this team, guys who know how to play the game, and it's going to be up to us to carry this thing as far as we can."