By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 29, 2009
With Gilbert Arenas making his debut 74 games into the season, you would expect an adjustment period and a little rust. For the Washington Wizards, the awkward moments began with pregame introductions. Caron Butler was expecting to be the second-to-last player introduced to save the spotlight for the $111 million player most responsible for the 10th sellout crowd at Verizon Center this season.
But as Butler prepared to slap five with his teammates, Arenas was introduced and fans rose to their seats to applaud and cheer him through a lengthy ovation. Butler awkwardly slid back to follow Arenas. "It was introductions," Arenas said with a shrug. "It's not like the last person wins a car."
But for the 20,173 fans in the building, Arenas's return was like a consolation prize for one of the most miserable seasons in franchise history. Arenas brought back an energy and excitement that has been lacking most of the season, but he couldn't deliver a victory as the Detroit Pistons spoiled his long-awaited comeback with a 98-96 victory last night.
Arenas had an opportunity to win the game after missing a free throw with 4.5 seconds remaining and hustled to grab his own rebound. He controlled the ball and raced to the corner to shoot an off-balance three-pointer, but Pistons center Kwame Brown, a former Wizards No. 1 overall pick, blocked the shot as Arenas stumbled backward into the Pistons' bench. Butler got the loose ball, but his jumper came up well short as time expired.
"As soon as I fell on the floor, I said, 'I knew I should have pump-faked,' " Arenas said, giving credit to former teammate Brown for a good defensive play. "One of those mental errors. I haven't played in a while. I don't know what I was doing. I could've called timeout and I could've went for the easy two. I got behind the three-point line and tried to jack it."
Arenas wasn't exactly "Hibachi" -- the nickname he gave himself for his hot shooting -- but he served up a hot plate for his teammates, finishing with 15 points and 10 assists in 29 minutes. He was actually upstaged by another former all-star guard returning from injury: Pistons guard Richard Hamilton, who returned after missing the past six games with a groin injury to score a game-high 31 points. Antawn Jamison led the Wizards (17-57) with 21 points, but that will likely be a meaningless footnote for the evening the No. 0 jersey was finally spotted on the court and not just in the stands.
"For a first time back, for the amount of time he's been out, I thought it was an excellent performance," Wizards interim coach Ed Tapscott said.
Before the game, Arenas said he got a text message from his former coach Eddie Jordan telling him to let the game come to him. And shortly after Arenas finally hit the floor in uniform, he quickly connected with his teammates, assisting on the Wizards' first four baskets, then taking a pass from Butler and hitting a wide-open three-pointer -- his first points since April 27 against Cleveland last postseason -- to give his team an early 11-2 lead.
The Pistons took control of the game from there and led 84-72 after three quarters, but the Wizards started the fourth period with an 11-2 run while Arenas sat. When Arenas returned, he quickly pushed the Wizards ahead with two free throws and a behind-the-back pass to Dominic McGuire (nine points, eight rebounds) for a dunk to put the Wizards ahead 87-86 with 6:27 remaining. Arenas brought the Wizards back within 96-95 with 26 seconds left when he fed Andray Blatche for a dunk. He fouled Hamilton with five seconds remaining, and Hamilton made both free throws, setting up the final sequence.
"I would've liked to have shot a better percentage," Arenas said, assessing his 3-for-12 shooting performance. "But it was fun, it was a pleasure. I hope we can keep this thing moving."
The Wizards plan to rest Arenas on back-to-back games, so he won't play tonight in Indiana.
Arenas said he nearly skipped the Detroit game after experiencing some discomfort in his knee at the morning shoot-around. He said he felt better after returning home. "It was just nerves kicking in," Arenas said.
Understandable, because Arenas has had three surgeries and missed 156 of the last 173 games the Wizards have played, including the postseason, since originally injuring himself on April 4, 2007. The three-time all-star decided to come back for himself and to give the team something to build upon heading into the first offseason in five years that won't include the playoffs.