New Elements, Winning Formula
Gilbert Arenas sauntered into the locker room for a rare postgame appearance last night, moments after the Agent Zero-less Wizards combined seamless offense with lockdown defense in the second half to put away the Knicks. They're 18-12 without Arenas, sharing the ball, caring about stopping the other guy for a change, inching their way up the NBA pecking order.
When Arenas was told Walt Frazier believed Caron Butler was among the top 15 players in the game, he nodded and said: "Not surprising. He and Antawn [Jamison] aren't flashy, but they just get it done."
Of course he has heard some of the talk about possible chemistry problems when a gunner of great renown like Arenas returns from November knee surgery. Before an interviewer could even go there, he paid Butler and the rest of his teammates the ultimate compliment.
"I haven't told coach this, but I'm considering just coming off the bench when I come back," he said quietly in front of cubicle in the Wizards' dressing room. "I just don't want to mess up the sync right now, you know? They got a nice thing going. When I do go in there, I want it to be free-flowing, not try to slowly get it back and slow everyone else down."
Across the carpet, Butler stood in the middle of multiple cameras and microphones and notebooks. He had just delivered another complete line (22 points, 5 rebounds, 5 steals and 3 assists) and set the franchise record for most free throws made in a row (54), dating from Dec. 28.
Arenas knew. Frazier knew, too, as the Hall of Fame Knick guard called the game from courtside.
The entire league now knows: Butler is not a No. 2 player anymore.
He's a franchise player substituting for another franchise player, and as long as the Wizards are going good -- they're currently the fourth-best team in the Eastern Conference after an 0-5 start -- even a shoot-from-anywhere, three-time all-star is willing to cede some time and the ball if this mix keeps gelling so well.
The numbers don't do Butler justice. What illustrates his rise in the mind of NBA observers is what he did to Quentin Richardson last night after Richardson dropped in a plethora of three-pointers in the first half, finishing each made basket by banging his fists off the front of his forehead as he pantomimed the horns of a bull.
Butler got sick of it, imitating "Q" at the end of the second quarter, half-smiling as he banged his own head with his fists. "I had to get under his skin a little bit," he said. "He was making too many shots."
What explains Butler's rise is going back at Paul Pierce last week after his counterpart at small forward for the Celtics began talking. Butler finally gave Pierce back some of his own smack, saying: "I'm being honest, man. You can't guard me."
Butler followed his words with action, essentially delivering two thrilling wins over the team with the NBA's best record.