Arenas, Wizards start season off strong
DALLAS -- Flip Saunders really had no idea what to expect before he coached his first game with the Washington Wizards. There were too many new pieces, too many unknowns. Gilbert Arenas, his best player, hadn't played in a season opener in two years. Antawn Jamison, his all-star power forward, was on the bench in a suit. And, Saunders hadn't announced his starting shooting guard and power forward until earlier in the day.
Given that the Wizards were opening the year on the road against the Dallas Mavericks, a potential contender in the Western Conference, Saunders said he was just going to sit back, like an antsy fan, and see how everything played out. He had to be pleased with what transpired Tuesday night at American Airlines Center, as the Wizards won, 102-91.
Arenas, finally unleashed after several setbacks from his troublesome left knee, exploded for a team-high 29 points and nine assists. Andray Blatche came off the bench to fill in for Jamison and contributed 20 points and seven rebounds. Reserve guard Randy Foye scored 19 points, including several clutch fourth quarter baskets.
There were the subtle contributions of Fabricio Oberto, DeShawn Stevenson and Brendan Haywood, who helped hold the Mavericks to just 39.5 percent shooting for the entire game. It was hard to go down the roster and not find someone who played who didn't have a hand in delivering Saunders's first win as coach of the Wizards.
"A lot of people have been waiting on this moment, seeing what the Wizards was going to bring to the table and how we're going to look. How is Gilbert going to look? Is he healthy? How's the chemistry?" Caron Butler said after scoring 16 points as the Wizards won their first season opener since 2005. "We got a nice team. I love what we got. I love what we did."
The Wizards are anxious to bury the memory of their 19-win season. President Ernie Grunfeld spent the offseason attempting to give his team the resources to rebound in a major way. He hired Saunders, traded for Mike Miller and Foye and signed Oberto. The Wizards also welcomed back Haywood and Stevenson from injury, but most importantly, Arenas returned healthy after his injury limited him to just 15 games the past two seasons.
Arenas eased his way through the preseason, alternating between playing passive setup man and aggressive scorer. But on Tuesday, the three-time all-star confidently played both roles with resounding results, proving to anyone who wondered, that he is, indeed, back. "I think that anyone that had any questions about where he's at," Saunders said, pausing. "He's just going to continue to get better and better."
He started the game by setting up Haywood with nifty passes for easy dunks, then he decided to attack the basket. On one play, he sliced through the Mavericks defense, split two defenders and made a left-hand layup. He later decided to step back and test his range, as he drilled two long jumpers over Dallas guard Jose Barea and shook his head, with a defiant look, as he backpedaled to get back on defense.
"I did fine," Arenas said. "Coach told me to be myself. Don't let the outside world dictate how I play. So, I did me."
Andray Blatche accepted his role as the first big man off the bench and immediately had an influence on the game, as he scored 14 points with five rebounds in the first half. Blatche, who has made a pledge to be more consistent and less of an occasional tease, was active on both ends of the floor, but very effective on the offensive end. He rebounded a Haywood miss and dunked. He also converted a difficult three-point play, making a layup after Dallas center Drew Gooden threw him to the ground.
Blatche's performance was needed with Jamison -- the team's leading scorer the past two seasons -- sidelined for a couple of weeks with a dislocated shoulder and Butler also having a difficult shooting night. Butler missed 11 of his 17 shots. Blatche and Butler both led the Wizards with two blocked shots.
Oberto started at power forward and while he had just five points and three rebounds, he provided solid defense on Dirk Nowitzki, who scored 34 points but missed 15 of his 25 shots. Oberto connected on a beautiful give-and-go with Arenas as Arenas finished with a whirling layup to give the Wizards an 87-77 lead. He also finished with the second best plus-minus of the evening, with Washington outscoring Dallas by 15 points in the 17 minutes he was on the floor.
Foye took a physical beating most of the night, as he was shoved into the front row and absorbed an elbow from Jason Terry. But it didn't stop him from being aggressive offensively as he fearlessly hit several clutch jumpers in the fourth quarter, when the Wizards outscored Dallas 25-17. Saunders couldn't single out one individual afterward. "I thought everybody over the course of the game" played a role in the win, Saunders said. "This is one game. We started out on a good foot. What happens is, sometimes you start setting the bar. Not many teams are going to come in here and win this year. This is a tough place to win."