Arenas is back in the arena
Healthy point guard lets Wizards play at 'much higher level'

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 29, 2009

DALLAS -- The last time Jason Kidd crossed paths with Gilbert Arenas on the basketball court, his New Jersey Nets had just defeated the Washington Wizards in early November 2007, with Arenas totaling 21 points and six assists.

Immediately after the game, Kidd pulled Arenas aside. He had heard reports that Arenas had his left knee drained two times after having surgery earlier that year, and that simply didn't sit well with Kidd, who had knee troubles himself a few years earlier.

"Take your time coming back. Don't rush it," Kidd said recently, recalling his conversation with Arenas. "I thought with him being young, it was important not to rush, because you have plenty of basketball ahead of you."

Arenas listened, but he kept playing until he suffered yet another left meniscus tear eight days later in Minneapolis. Neither Arenas nor Kidd could have imagined that it would take two more surgeries and nearly two more years before they shared the floor again. When Arenas torched Kidd's Dallas Mavericks for 29 points and nine assists in the Wizards 102-91 victory on Tuesday night, Kidd didn't need to offer Arenas any cautionary words of advice.

It was obvious that Arenas was all right this time around.

"I did fine," Arenas said afterward.

Arenas reintroduced himself to the NBA with a performance that was efficient and reminiscent of better times, before surgeries and before strenuous rehab sessions, when Arenas could just focus on being a better basketball player. On the Wizards' first possession of the game, Arenas went right at Kidd, barreling toward the hoop and drawing a foul. He whirled the ball around his waist three times, sank two free throws, and before the night was over Arenas had scored at least 25 points in a game for the first time since scoring 27 against Minnesota on Nov. 16, 2007.

Arenas underwent his second surgical procedure soon after that game, and in his past two comeback attempts (just before the 2008 playoffs and for two games last season) he always had to overcome the mental hurdles of testing his knee. That often resulted in him being less aggressive and focusing more on blending in. In his previous 11 games, including the playoffs, Arenas had scored 20 points or more only twice.

Before the season opener in Dallas, Arenas said Coach Flip Saunders told him not to let the "outside world" dictate how he should play. With Saunders's offense placing the ball in his hands and forcing him to make decisions, Arenas deftly balanced his duties as a distributor and scorer. He committed just three turnovers and shot 10 of 21 from the floor.

Arenas noticed that the Mavericks were "weak" on pick-and-roll defense and exploited it to his advantage, first by setting up Brendan Haywood for three easy dunks, and next by penetrating into the lane for driving baskets -- runners off the glass and winding, whirling shots in traffic. He missed 9 of 15 shots from beyond 15 feet, but after hitting two shots from just inside the three-point line late in the second quarter, he backpedaled and cocksurely shook his head at Dallas's Jose Barea.

"There is no question that Gil brings that swagger," Saunders said.

Andray Blatche was second in scoring with 20 points on 8-of-14 shooting, but he said he couldn't take all the credit for how he played.

"Honestly, it all starts with having Gil back. Gilbert, he just draws so much attention, I'm always going to be open because he sucks everybody in."

Mavericks Coach Rick Carlisle said last month that having a healthy Arenas back automatically put the Wizards among the best teams in the Eastern Conference. "Arenas was a top two or three guard in the entire league, when healthy," Carlisle said. "Everybody knows he's an explosive scorer, but he can also run a team. His ability to get other guys involved and hit the big shots, make the big plays, takes them to a much higher level than obviously they were last year. I think they are going to be in the hunt."

Arenas has tempered his emotions when speaking with reporters, but he couldn't contain his joy as he got ready to hit the floor at American Airlines Center for the morning shoot-around. Arenas smiled at back-court mate Mike Miller and shouted, "Game one!"

He then gave an approving nod, as if he had been waiting for this moment for some time. Several hours later, after his stellar debut in his latest comeback, Arenas's teammates crowded around him, patted him on the back, rubbed his head and congratulated him. Kidd probably couldn't find Arenas in the crowd.

"The biggest thing is, I'm happy to see he's back and that he's feeling better and can play at a higher level," Kidd said. "He can give them a lot of Ws, a lot of points, leadership and a lot of excitement."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company