By Mike Wise
Saturday, January 19, 2008
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.
In the alpha-male world of the NBA, this is called punking your opponent, making him clearly understand he's not the top dog on the court.
It's been going on for a while now for Butler, these triumphs after some gamesmanship, and gone unnoticed is a subtle changing of the guard: He's already leapfrogged so many of the game's more prominent small forwards.
Dirk Nowitzki, who is listed as a power forward but plays more like a small forward, and Shawn Marion are the only players better at the position than Butler today -- and Marion is very close to being passed by Butler.
"He's on the threshold," Frazier said. Clyde does not give out compliments like candy, especially in his second incarnation as a Knicks broadcaster for the past 20-plus years. But Butler's lack of deficiencies has left him no choice. "I really don't see any weaknesses," Frazier added. "He has all the moves. He plays good defense. He can shoot from the perimeter and now his free throws. I think he's definitely in the top 15."
People leaving the Phone Booth after the Wizards beat back the Knicks in the second half, 111-98, will remember Jamison's 32 points and the way Washington put the clamps on the Knicks in the second half. And let's be clear: Jamison should be an all-star this season.
But this victory, like many others since Arenas went down with a knee injury, was brought to Eddie Jordan by the player he once nicknamed "Tough Juice."
There is an infusion of what's in Butler's veins going around the Wizards now that is completely uncharacteristic of past Jordan teams, which could score with anyone but thought defense was for Detroit.
The Wizards held their eighth opponent in nine games to less than 100 points last night. They came into the game allowing 98.9 points per game, six points less than last season. Teams that used to shoot almost 48 percent from the field against Washington now shoot 44 percent. They give up two fewer rebounds a game and get two more defensive rebounds per game. No team in the NBA has made more statistical defensive progress from a year ago other than the Celtics.
Part of that is the hiring of assistant coach Randy Ayers and his concentration on defense. Part of it is players such as Brendan Haywood and Andray Blatche making a sincere commitment to defending the paint. But most of it is Butler, the tenacity and passion he and DeShawn Stevenson bring to that side of the court.
Offense is the only real concern when Arenas comes back, and he basically put some of it to rest last night by saying he would defer to the most cohesive five players on the team until Arenas feels healthy enough to become one of them.
It was no coincidence Arenas's words came after he watched Butler and Jamison combine for 54 points, after Butler refused to let Richardson or any other Knick be silly in his own backyard.
Pierce found out the real truth last week and Richardson learned last night: The guy with horns and real machismo -- the genuine bull among NBA small forwards -- now plays in Washington.