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Arenas Quickly Shakes Off the Rust

By Thomas Boswell
Sunday, March 29, 2009

Even Gilbert Arenas could barely believe how quickly his game -- and the game itself -- returned to him, like the oldest friend, always dependable and loyal.

After three knee surgeries, and two barren seasons in the prime of his career, what permanent damage would be left? And how long would it take for everyone to know whether the Wizards' $111 million man, with five more years on his deal, be a hero once again or, yes, a zero?

The answer: just one night.

Agent Zero, NBA superhero, may not be entirely back. But a thrilling player, looking a great deal like ol' Gilbert, returned to Verizon Center on Saturday night. A bit rusty in his shooting touch, but explosive, healthy and passing brilliantly, Arenas led an inspired Wizards comeback against Detroit that barely fell short when both Arenas and Caron Butler missed shots in the last three seconds of a 98-96 loss.

"I don't know what I was thinking," said Arenas after he had rebounded his own missed free throw in the left corner then, with Kwame Brown all over him, threw up a three-point shot that was blocked with 2.4 seconds left. "I could have called time. Could have taken a two-pointer. Instead, I threw up a three. . . . I have no idea what I did."

Apparently, Arenas's brain had more rust than his left knee, which has had three surgeries in two years. In 29 minutes, including all of crunch time, Arenas had 15 points, 10 assists, 3 rebounds and only 1 turnover.

"A terrific performance. As good as you can expect in his first game," said interim coach Ed Tapscott. "He sure makes the game easier to coach . . . a lot easier.

"He did a great job of letting the game come to him."

Translated, that meant that Arenas looked to attract defenders, distort the Pistons' alignment, then look to pass first and involve his teammates. Why?

"I got a text message from [ex-Wiz coach] Eddie Jordan this morning saying, 'Let the game come to you. Don't try to do too much the first time. Play the game the way it is supposed to be played,' " Arenas said.

And that, perhaps, is the way he will play it in the future, with more emphasis on his role as point guard and leader; time will tell, but by next season Arenas may be a 20-point, but not 28-point scorer, but with more assists and more concern for giving his team cohesiveness. Many stars, Paul Pierce recently in Boston, have made that adjustment in mid-career when injury or changes in team personnel dictated its wisdom.

"I drove and missed some layups. I have to get used to being hit again. Practice is easy. You have to learn in [real] games . . . I would like to have shot a better percentage (3 for 12, with two three-pointers). Rust," Arenas said.

But all in all, he was clearly delighted with his performance in a game that -- he claims -- he almost didn't play. Yes, that's right. The often mysterious Agent had to have his drama. (Is it an addiction?)

"They say, 'If you don't want it to rain, wash your car,' " Arenas said. "After [morning] shoot-around, my knee started aching. I thought, 'Why now?' I got home and as soon as I said, 'I'm not playing,' my knee felt better."

When a man lives in a world of blogs and twitters, where every moment of his day can be the world's business, is it tempting to enhance every moment, bring theater to your morning cereal? Or, maybe, his knee just hurt.

In the end, Arenas reached the logical decision -- to attempt a comeback for a few games this season, rather than waiting until next season. "I have to find out where it's at," he said. First results were impressive indeed.

The Wiz also got enthusiastic play from the talented but erratic youngsters -- Andray Blache (15 points), Nick Young (13) and JaVale McGee (8) -- that Arenas called out for inconsistent play and poor work habits two days ago in Mike Wise's column in the Post.

"They responded well after the comments I said," Arenas said. "I've been [teasing] them [in private] about it for a year and a half. They didn't take it personally."

Ironically, Wiz fans, who left 2,000 or more empty seats, did not seem enthralled, initially, by Arenas return. The Verizon Center was almost empty when the Wizards took the floor for warm-ups just 18 minutes before game time. Any NBA crowd is entitled to arrive late and laid back when its team has the next-to-worst record in the NBA. So, when Arenas came onto the floor for the first time -- tucked at the end of the layup line, like a little boy trying to hide in the back of class, he attracted as little attention as possible.

Barely a buzz. Like a non-event. As if the anesthetized crowd, numbed by so many losses, so much injury and disappointment this season, had almost forgotten why Arenas was worth so much acclaim and affection not so long ago. Do we really forget so soon? Do we overlook the obvious?

In November, when next season begins, the Wiz may put an almost unrecognizably different, and vastly better, team on the floor. Arenas, Butler, Antawn Jamison will presumably be joined by injured centers Brendan Haywood and Etan Thomas, as well as a lottery draft pick, perhaps even 6-foot-10 child-monster Blake Griffin of Oklahoma. At the moment, they have a 19.9-percent chance of getting the No. 1 overall ping-pong ball.

The capacity to dream, does that atrophy too after fans wait so long for Agent Zero, settling for his comic blogs, costumes and quotes, and eternal teasing medical reports?

Perhaps, just a bit, it does. The late-season apathy, the tepid welcome back without a single hand-printed sign in the stands, and just one loyal yell of "Gilbert" during the anthem -- was that all?

Then Arenas took the floor. And in 10 minutes, he reminded everyone that he is not just the Wizards' central star but, more important, the player with the most decisive feel of the game and a power to command the action in both acrobatic and subtle ways.

First, Arenas passed to Blatche for a layup. Then he dished to Dominic McGuire for a dunk, followed by a penetration move and no-look flip to Blatche for another slam. After a slick assist to Butler for still another easy layup, Arenas pulled back a yard behind the three-point line and drilled a perfect trey for an 11-2 Washington lead.

"Time out!" cried the Pistons. In less than four minutes and only six Wiz possessions, Arenas had four assists, three points and had forced Detroit to huddle, regroup and cope.

Cope, that is, with him.

Perhaps the rarest sight in the NBA this season has been a decent team, like Detroit, calling time out in disarray to figure out how to stop a Washington onslaught.

By the fourth quarter, the crowd had entirely changed its collective mind -- and heart -- and was on its feet in a standing "O" for Arenas after his behind-the-back bounce pass in traffic led to a fast break-ending dunk by Blatche for an 87-86 Wiz lead.

Ah, memories, of playoff hopes and building a conference contender, reawakened in one bright night.

"They missed me," said Arenas, grinning. "What can I say?"

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