Detroit Pistons Edge Washington Wizards, 98-96

Though Gilbert Arenas's return was the story of the game, Detroit's Richard Hamilton, center, also returned from injury to score a game-high 31 points last night.
Though Gilbert Arenas's return was the story of the game, Detroit's Richard Hamilton, center, also returned from injury to score a game-high 31 points last night. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
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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."

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 for a wide-open three-pointer -- his first points since April 27 against Cleveland last postseason.

Arenas brought back an energy and excitement that has been lacking in the building all season, but he couldn't deliver a victory as the Detroit Pistons spoiled his return with a 98-96 defeat last night. Arenas had an opportunity to win the game after missing a free throw with 4.5 seconds remaining. He grabbed the rebound and raced to the corner for an off-balance three-pointer, where Pistons center and former Wizards No. 1 pick Kwame Brown blocked the shot. Butler grabbed the rebound, but his jumper came up well short.

"One of those mental errors," Arenas said of his final shot. "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 30 minutes, causing the 21,073 fans to gasp every time he hit the floor. 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 the stands.

Arenas said he nearly skipped the game after experiencing some discomfort in his knee at the morning shoot-around. He said he felt better after returning home. 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 not to expect to score 30 points. He's taken an arduous road to return since originally injuring himself in a collision with the Charlotte Bobcats' Gerald Wallace on April 4, 2007. He has since had three surgeries on the same knee, the latest coming last September, which prompted him to be extremely cautious with his return. After signing a six-year, $111 million contract last July, and with the Wizards struggling through one of the worst seasons in franchise history, Arenas decided there was no need to make a hurried return. After missing 156 of the last 173 games that the Wizards have played, including the postseason, Arenas decided to come back for himself and to give the team something to build upon heading into the first offseason that won't include the playoffs for the first time in five years. "I would've liked to have shot a better percentage," Arenas said, assessing his performance. "It was fun, it was a pleasure. I hope we can keep this thing moving."

Arenas will skip back-to-back games for the rest of the season, so he will not play tonight in Indiana. The Pistons led 84-72 after three quarters, but the Wizards started the fourth quarter with a 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 for a dunk to put the Wizards ahead 87-86 with 6:27 remaining. Arenas brought the Wizards back within 96-95 when he fed Andray Blatche for a dunk with 26 seconds left. He fouled Hamilton with five seconds remaining, and Hamilton made both free throws, setting up the final sequence. "We just need some time to get a little more cohesion," Tapscott said. "For a first time back, for the amount of time he's been out, I thought it was an excellent performance."

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