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Storybook Finish? Not Exactly

By Mike Wise
Thursday, April 3, 2008

Gilbert Arenas went down hard with 15 seconds left, the good and the bad knee pounding the hardwood. Grimacing slightly, he got up and stepped to the free throw line in the fourth quarter of a taut game for the first time in more than four months.

The first free throw was good. The second was all net, and gave his team a one-point lead.

In a blink, the late-game drama Arenas craves so badly returned, just as the Wizards' superstar had come back from a surgically repaired left knee after missing 66 of 74 games this season. His stroke was pure, his instincts sharp and his body held up remarkably well for such a prolonged layoff.

The happy ending, however, needed work.

Within 10 unfathomable seconds, DeShawn Stevenson hobbled off the court with a sprained ankle after a loose-ball pileup. The ensuing jump ball, won by Caron Butler and tipped by Antawn Jamison deep downcourt -- seemingly out of harm's way -- was somehow retrieved by the moribund Milwaukee Bucks with 1.1 seconds left. By Ramon Sessions, a little-known reserve guard.

The Bucks used every tenth of that second to inbound the ball to Andrew Bogut, who found Sessions on the left baseline, the area Arenas vacated to collapse on Bogut.

Yes, the youngster sunk a rainbow over the outstretched arm and disbelieving gaze of a three-time all-star, the comeback kid now in the middle of a crestfallen arena. Yes, this was about as deflating and bizarre a loss as can be imagined, alongside Michael Ruffin's gaffe a year ago against Toronto, in which Ruffin tossed the ball into the air thinking time had expired, only to watch in horror as Morris Peterson pulled it down and hit a game-tying three-pointer of an eventual overtime loss to the Raptors.

And, no, we have no idea how Arenas felt physically or emotionally afterward because neither he nor Antonio Daniels, who knows he should have tracked down that tipped ball and ended the game at the foul line instead of being outworked by Sessions, stuck around to discuss the late-game meltdown.

An agonizing loss does not define the season, but how the Wizards managed to give back a 10-point lead late in the fourth quarter -- moments after Arenas had checked in with five minutes left -- has got to damage the psyche.

And of all nights, on the evening of Arenas's theatrical return, which had Verizon Center all abuzz an hour before and after tip-off.

"He's in uniform?" a cameraman asked about 10 minutes before the 7 p.m. start time.

A team official nodded.

"Is he coming out?"

"Who knows?" he said, shrugging. "Anything can happen. It's Gilbert."

It's Gilbert, all right, who with each utterance and blog post the past week almost became the Supernova Who Cried Wolf.

To summarize:

Sunday, March 23, Verizon Center: A pouting Arenas is upset because he wants to play and team physicians won't clear him to suit up. Leaves Verizon Center in a huff before deciding on his way home he should return to the arena and support his teammates.

Sunday, March 30, Los Angeles: Team doctors medically clear Arenas to play in his home town. But he doesn't suit up, instead holding court before the game, saying he will opt to take a pay cut when signing his new deal to ensure that Jamison, an unrestricted free agent, will stay with Washington next year.

Tuesday, April 1, Washington: After news is leaked that the Wizards have okayed his return, a reporter received this text from Arenas's cellphone number: "I'm not playing tomorrow."

Last night, Verizon Center: Of course, he played. It's Gilbert, who doesn't just star in sneaker commercials themed, "Impossible is Nothing." No, he reenacts that mantra. Daily.

The lineups had been announced and the game began. Like paparazzi camped outside a Sunset Boulevard club, we kept waiting outside the Wizards' locker room. And waited, to see if all of Abe Pollin's men -- physicians, strength coaches, clubhouse attendants who hadn't laundered jersey No. 0 since last Nov. 14 -- could help Arenas take the court again.

Out of the tunnel he eventually emerged, jogging to the court to join his first timeout huddle since November. The whispers began to spread around the lower bowl. After he removed his jersey, the video scoreboard overhead captured Arenas on the bench and a large ovation followed.

"He's b-a-a-ack," the public-address announcer intoned. "Agent Zero, Gilbert Arenas!"

A thunderous ovation ensued with 5 minutes 21 seconds left in the first quarter as he walked on the court and raised his arms in thanks. On his first offensive possession, he went back door, received a pass, feinted, lost his defender underneath, and scored an easy reverse layup.

He rose and fired from three-point range. Twice. Good. Good.

He started magnificently, hitting his first four shots in almost nonchalant fashion, as if he were playing in UCLA's open gym at lunch hour. Arenas didn't try to do too much, playing within himself even in the fourth quarter with the Bucks closing in.

There were instantly questions about his ability to help his teammates defensively and whether his lack of lateral movement would hurt the Wizards as they tried to guard the perimeter.

The biggest question from this vantage point, though, was about tempo, rhythm and spacing. How fast can the Wizards incorporate their improvisational, open-court threat in an offense that has grown more methodical and precise while playing to Butler's pace? Quickly enough, before they meet either Cleveland or Orlando in the first round of the playoffs at the end of the month?

Butler, for one, wasn't worried.

"Everything Gilbert does is going to be big," he said. "He had a big entrance and he deserved the standing ovation. Behind closed doors you don't see how hard he worked to get back on the court and back out there. He was going through a lot mentally and physically. We shared some ups and downs.

"To see him back on the court, smiling and happy to be out there pain-free, was a sigh of relief."

Still, the ending was such a downer, a major blow on a night that was supposed to be an ironclad win against an awful Eastern Conference foe, a chance for Arenas to get his swagger back and play enough minutes to find his rhythm and legs.

That nightmare sequence at the end, Sessions's shot sinking everything at once, just proved to be a killjoy.

"He wanted to make his grand entrance and he had his time," Brendan Haywood said. "Now it's time to get back to business."

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