By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 24, 2008
Gilbert Arenas was frustrated when team doctors stopped him from making his return last night, but the three-time all-star was in a much better mood while watching the Washington Wizards earn a 95-83 victory over the Detroit Pistons.
The victory helped the Wizards (36-33) remain in sole possession of fifth place in the Eastern Conference, 1 1/2 games ahead of Toronto and Philadelphia.
Arenas, who has been out since undergoing surgery on his left knee on Nov. 21, participated in the team shoot-around yesterday morning and arrived at Verizon Center thinking he would play but was told by team doctors that he should wait at least one more week.
About 1 hour 15 minutes before tip-off, Arenas walked out of the locker room. He did not speak with reporters but said over his shoulder: "Ya'll don't have to write any more. I'm not coming back this year."
After cooling off, Arenas returned and watched the game from the Wizards' bench. Throughout the game, Arenas was on his feet encouraging teammates, yapping at Pistons players and listening intently when Coach Eddie Jordan drew up plays during timeouts.
Arenas said his initial response was fueled by an intense desire to get back onto the court and last night's game, which was televised nationally on ESPN, is exactly the kind of situation Arenas loves being a part of.
"I went in there hoping to have them look at the knee and say I could play," Arenas said. "Then [the doctor] told me I need one more week. I understand, he's the doctor, but it wasn't what I wanted to hear. It took me a long time to get my mind right about coming back at all and today, I was there. I wanted to play."
Until Arenas is cleared to return, the Wizards can only hope to play the kind of solid basketball they played throughout last night's game.
All-star forward Antawn Jamison led the way with 24 points and 12 rebounds for his 40th double-double of the season but five players scored in double figures and the Wizards shot 52.8 percent from the field against one of the top defensive teams in the league.
The Wizards led 28-20 at the end of the first period, 47-40 at halftime and beat back a late Pistons push after carrying a 71-65 edge into the fourth quarter.
Andray Blatche gave the Wizards a 75-69 lead when he made a 16-foot jump shot with 9:06 to play and on the following Detroit possession, Pistons forward Rasheed Wallace drew a technical foul for throwing an elbow into Blatche's rib cage.
Caron Butler (17 points, six assists, five rebounds) converted the free throw and the Wizards later took an 81-71 lead on a three-pointer by Roger Mason Jr. When Chauncey Billups drew the Pistons within seven by making a three-pointer at the 2:27 mark, the Wizards answered with a jump shot by Antonio Daniels, and a steal by Butler that lead to a Brendan Haywood dunk three-point play.
Perhaps one of the most impressive aspects of the victory was that the Wizards, who have been considered to be more of a finesse team in recent seasons, matched the Pistons physically.
The Pistons held a 39-33 rebounding edge but the Wizards held a 50-20 advantage in points in the paint and earned five more free throw attempts. Haywood finished with 16 points on 6-of-8 shooting and forward Darius Songaila came off the bench to add 10 points on 5-of-6 shooting.
"It was a very physical game and we played a very smart game," Jordan said. "We had some turnovers there and plays we could have executed better but for the most part we had the proper temperament and the proper personality. Against a team like that, you have to keep your focus."
That focus will be challenged during a five-game road trip that begins tomorrow night at Portland. The trip is the team's longest of the season and the last time the Wizards went west, they finished 1-3 with losses to Denver, Phoenix and Golden State and a last-second win over the Clippers in Los Angeles.
Arenas will make the trip and continue to participate in practices and work on his knee during individual workouts with the athletic training staff. Arenas has expressed concern that another injury could cost him this summer when he plans on opting out of the final season of his contract to become an unrestricted free agent but said he has recently started to feel more confident about coming back.
"I was watching a movie [Saturday] and it had a great quote that got me thinking," Arenas said. "It was something like 'don't let fear control you.' Mentally, I've been afraid of going back out there but it made me realize that I can't be scared anymore. I feel good, the knee feels good and I want to play."
Jordan understands and respects his star player's desire to return.
"The future has a whole lot of great things for him but that being said, he's still trying to get something done in the near future," Jordan said. "He wants to play and we all have to give him a lot of credit for wanting to play. Last week. This week. Tomorrow. He is not an NBA player who is just sitting on his laurels waiting for July 1. He wants to play basketball and that's a good, good thing."