Wizards still relying on an incomplete Gilbert Arenas

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 18, 2009; D03

SACRAMENTO -- Gilbert Arenas understands that despite his two-year, injury-marred hiatus from basketball, his Wizards teammates expect him to make layups and free throws in the final seconds and blow by an opponent when he attempts a crossover dribble -- rather than having the ball poked away like Sacramento Kings rookie Tyreke Evans did in the closing seconds of Wednesday's 112-109 loss.

Arenas also believes that he is letting down his team, and he took personal responsibility for four of the losses during this six-game slide that has the Wizards staring at a 7-16 record.

"I would've laughed," Arenas said when asked how he would have responded if told before the season that the Wizards would have such a record in mid-December. "I would've said, 'How many people got hurt?' "

The Wizards struggled with Antawn Jamison sidelined for the first nine games of the season, and they have been without starting shooting guard Mike Miller the past 11 games. But they have had most of their desired rotation players available for the past six losses, which featured five games decided by three points or less and an average margin of defeat of 2.3.

They are proving that they compete, but don't complete. That might be because Arenas's return to his clutch, pre-three-knee-surgery form is incomplete.

The Arenas of old appeared to be close to returning in Sacramento, as he scored 13 of his game-high 33 points in the fourth quarter and brought the Wizards back from a 12-point deficit with about six minutes remaining. But instead of cocksurely hitting the game-winning shot and whirling around, arms raised before the shot splashed through the net, Arenas lifted his arms with 3.4 seconds remaining to take credit for fouling Evans after losing the ball.

Asked about the pressure he feels, Arenas mentioned his six-year, $111-million contract. "It's only pressure whenever somebody mentions my name, they mention one-eleven. They don't just call me a basketball player. They put a number behind it, like that defines who I am," Arenas said, arguing that this is the first year of his mega-deal since he opted out of the final year of his initial six-year deal with Washington. "There is no pressure playing the game of basketball. I'm a basketball player.

"I haven't played this game in two years. I haven't been in situations where I get to take game-winners. I can't take game-winners in practice. I can't shoot free throws in practice that simulates the game. There's no crowd. There's no nothing, so I'm learning as I go," said Arenas, who is averaging 21 points and 6.9 assists, but shooting just 40.2 percent. "I'm getting back and feeling the vibe again. People don't understand that. It's like, if you're a bodybuilder and you stop lifting for two years, then go back in there and try to lift 400 pounds, you'll break your arm. I'm happy where I am. I see progress [23] games into the season. I know where I need to be."

The Wizards are nowhere close to where they expected to be, which will surely lead to speculation about potential trades. After waiting to reunite Arenas with Jamison and Caron Butler, that trio has gone just 4-9 in games started together this season. Butler attracted attention from several teams last summer, when the Wizards were looking to trade the fifth overall pick in June's NBA draft.

The Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns, the Wizards' opponents on Friday and Saturday, respectively, were both interested in acquiring Butler, who has been in a season-long slump under new Coach Flip Saunders, averaging just 16.7 points per game and shooting 41.4 percent. Although President Ernie Grunfeld recently said he would be patient in evaluating the team, Butler said the Wizards can't be concerned with external distractions and trade rumors with the team underachieving.

"You got to play basketball," Butler said. "If trades or anything like that happen, that's the nature of the business. Me personally, I've been on three different teams in my short career. So, I don't worry about that. I'm versatile. I'll play anywhere.

"It's usually other teams around the league calling in, trying to make something happen, trying to force the issue, trying to get you to break the thing up, just blow the thing up. A lot of people think you'll have a fire sale or something. You can't control that," he said. "The only thing you can control is that right now, we're in Wizards uniforms. We got to go out there and try to perform at a high level and try to win games and show that this group belongs together."

Butler said he "wouldn't have believed" that the team would struggle as it has, but added that Saunders still told the team he believes it can win at least 45 games this season.

Arenas added that he doesn't think the team should revamp the roster. "We have all the pieces we need," he said. "When you trade in the middle of the season, you're desperate.

"It's frustrating, but you know, the best part about this is we're staying together as a unit," Arenas said. "Other teams probably would've blown up, been having fights. But we're sticking together. That's the best thing we can do right now in the situation we're in. No one wants to jump off the boat while it's sinking. I'm going to have to repair it. The team is waiting for me to repair it and I'm going to have to. I'm going to have to get back into my prime quicker than I thought."

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