By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 6, 2010; 1:03 AM
NEW YORK - There was a noticeable difference in the Washington Wizards' locker room at Madison Square Garden before they played the New York Knicks on Friday night. A familiar tradition in past seasons was spotted for the first time in exactly 10 months as Gilbert Arenas sat on a wooden bench, with a pair of red headphones on his head, music blaring as he dribbled a basketball between his legs.
Arenas was set to come back for the first time since his 50-game suspension for bringing guns into Verizon Center's locker room - and for the first time since high school he wore a jersey other than No. 0. He was admittedly overcome with anxiety, with thoughts of the unknown permeating in his mind; the same worries that caused him problems last month, when fears about the reaction he would receive at a home preseason game led him to fake an injury.
"I didn't know what to expect, so I said I was hurt," Arenas said after coming off the bench to score 18 points in the Wizards' 112-91 loss to the New York Knicks. "It was one of those things, my nerves kicked in. Human nature I guess."
That uneasiness was apparent when Arenas's first jumper clanked hard off the backboard in the first period. Arenas was understandably rusty early after being out of action for nearly three weeks with a mild groin strain and also a strained tendon in his right ankle. But after finally settling down, Arenas scored 14 points in the fourth period, and even dove into the second row trying to recover a loose ball.
"It's really been a long time," Arenas said. "They kept yelling for me to be aggressive and I was like, 'I forgot how to.' "
But Arenas's return - and a game-high 22 points from Andray Blatche - couldn't offset a balanced attack from the opposition, with reserve Toney Douglas leading five Knicks players in double figures with 19 points.
No. 1 overall pick John Wall was unable to duplicate his performance against Philadelphia three nights before, when he became the first player to ever have a game with at least 29 points, 13 assists and 9 steals. He finished with 13 points, 7 assists, a career-high 9 turnovers, struggling in his first professional game at Madison Square Garden.
Wall had four turnovers in the first quarter, getting called for palming the basketball while driving inside and plowing over Amar'e Stoudemire. At one point in the second period, Wall slashed to the basket and had what appeared to be a layup but instead dropped the ball behind him to Yi Jianlian, who fumbled the pass.
"I gotta be a better leader and a better decision-maker for my team to win games and keep the turnovers down," Wall said. "At times I was trying to be too unselfish. I'm going to have some bumps and bruises, but I want to get my turnovers down for us as a team to win and be in better situations to win games."
Arenas hadn't played since recording 19 points and 14 assists in a win over Philadelphia on Jan. 5. He was suspended indefinitely the next day after making light of his gun incident by mockingly turning his fingers into guns and shooting his teammates in the huddle. The months that followed saw him receive a felony gun charge, 30 days in a halfway house and the negativity surrounding him had him contemplating his future in the NBA.
"I thought about retiring for a minute, because I really didn't know what to expect. I just thought it was too much negativity to come back and I just didn't know if I was mentally prepared for it again," Arenas said, jokingly explaining why he eventually had to get back on the court. "I couldn't stay home. When you're a father and you have kids, eventually you have to get out of the house."
He came back to play three games in the preseason, but was saddled with more injuries, fake or otherwise, afterward. Coach Flip Saunders called on Arenas to enter the game with about three minutes left in the first period and the three-time all-star said he was prepared to take on that role for however long it's necessary.
"I haven't been consistent with the team since training camp," Arenas said. "So those guys earned those spots. I'm surprised I got in as fast as I did. I'm appreciative of that. I should be coming off the bench for another couple weeks, couple of months. It's fine with me. When I come off, I got to be ready, like 'The Microwave.' "
Arenas missed four of his first five shots, but came back to lead a rally in the final period. The Wizards (1-3) trailed, 86-73, in the fourth period after Douglas made a layup, but Blatche approached Arenas and told him to take over. Arenas helped lead the Wizards back, as he went on one of his customary one-man scoring binges.
He went on a personal 9-2 run, connecting on back-to-back three-pointers and dashing to the basket to convert a three-point play that brought the Wizards within 88-82. He later hit another three-pointer and stepped back to bury a fallaway jumper to bring the Wizards within six, but the Knicks (3-2) scored the next six points, taking a 100-88 lead when Danilo Gallinari (16 points) made a three-pointer. And after Arenas's final basket, the Knicks closed the game on a 18-3 run.
"I'm disappointed how we lost," Arenas said. "I'm glad I got the first one out of the way. Now, we can get some team chemistry and start picking this thing up."
Saunders said afterward that it was good to have Arenas back, even in defeat. "I think if there's a bright spot, him getting out there, playing a little bit. For not having more than one practice in three weeks he can still score, and that's one thing he can do. Now it's a matter of seeing how we fit him all in with our guys."