By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 7, 2010; 12:09 AM
Gilbert Arenas finally had his homecoming, as he made his first regular season appearance at Verizon Center on Saturday with his image covering the game programs and fans welcoming him with a rousing ovation.
But Antawn Jamison, the other half of the expected reunion, didn't play with a sore left knee keeping him in street clothes in his return to the building that he called home for 61/2 seasons.
For three quarters, though, Arenas and the absent Jamison were witnesses to a thrilling display from the one of the pieces that the Washington Wizards received in their three-team deal at last season's trade deadline that sent Jamison to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Al Thornton fought relentlessly for rebounds, attacked the rim for a layups and dunks and was so smooth in transition that his baskets were followed on the loudspeakers with music from soul singer Al Green. But after Thornton scored 23 points, Coach Flip Saunders decided to ride with Arenas and not Thornton for the entire fourth quarter, leaving the Wizards without one of their most effective players when it counted most. And Thornton had to serve as a spectator as the Wizards lost, 107-102, before an announced crowd of 14,442.
"I said to Al, 'I made a mistake,' " Saunders said, adding that he felt that the three-guard set with Arenas, Kirk Hinrich and No. 1 overall pick John Wall had proved to be effective in stretches. "In hindsight, you wish you would've gotten him back in the game - I don't know who for. You just wish you could get him back in the game."
Thornton may have helped, but the Wizards still had opportunities to win the game, as they led 95-93 with 3 minutes 16 seconds left after Hinrich (21 points) took a pass from Arenas in the right corner and buried a three-pointer. But the Cavaliers, determined to prove that they had more than just LeBron James the past few years, scored the next 10 points, with Mo Williams (28 points) sending fans toward the exits when he knocked down a three-pointer with 49.9 seconds remaining.
The Wizards (1-4), meanwhile went nearly three minutes without another field goal, until Andray Blatche made a meaningless, 17-foot turnaround jumper with 11.4 seconds remaining.
"Out of these five games, we had it in the end. It's just teams outsmarting us and outplaying us and finishing games stronger and we're not doing that," Wall said after getting the second double-double of his career with 13 points with 10 assists along with six turnovers.
Blatche had 16 points and a season-high 15 rebounds. JaVale McGee had 11 points and 10 rebounds, but he missed a critical rebound to Cleveland's Anderson Varejao that led to an Anthony Parker three-pointer and forced Saunders to go with Hilton Armstrong down the stretch.
Daniel Gibson came off the bench to add 19 for the Cavaliers (3-3).
"We weren't quite as sharp as we needed to be. We need to get better in every aspect," Hinrich said.
Thornton had 12 points in the third period, helping the Wizards come back from a 10-point deficit. He scored with baseline jumpers and driving layups, giving the Wizards a 66-64 lead with a putback dunk. Later in the period, Williams tried to drive inside for a floater but McGee caught the ball, then threw it ahead to Thornton, who made a layup that gave the Wizards a 74-69 lead.
Thornton said it was tough to sit the entire fourth period.
"Of course, I was a little frustrated, that I had it going, pretty much the whole game, and not to be subbed back in the game. It was frustration, but people make mistakes, and you just have to move forward. No hard feelings," he said. "We talked about it, and he apologized for it. He just made a mistake, but at the end of the day, for the most part, it was looking good out there for us. The guys they had in there was flowing."
In just his second game after missing the first three with a strained tendon in his right ankle, Arenas had an uneven performance with 13 points on just 4-of-13 shooting. He had two bad turnovers in the first half, including a cross-court pass that knocked over a beer in the front row. Arenas couldn't help but laugh as he backpedaled on defense.
He returned to help the Wizards seemingly take control midway in the fourth. He broke an 83-all tie with a three-pointer, and later blocked a shot, hit a jumper, then completed a textbook fast break when he found a trailing Blatche cutting to the basket for a dunk that put the team ahead, 90-85, with 5:12 remaining.
But Arenas started to lose steam late. After Gibson put the Cavaliers ahead, 100-95, with a three-pointer, Arenas lost a dribble that nearly went out of bounds.
Hinrich had to track it down near half court and heave the ball before the Wizards got a shot-clock violation.
"It was a point in the fourth quarter, I should've subbed myself out for Al. Al had it going on," Arenas said. "I didn't want take away from what the team has been doing. I have been out for the last month. I'm trying to get my legs under me and get in shape."
Said Saunders: "It was a tough situation. If we had won the game, it would've been great playing them. We didn't win it, and I question myself. I questioned myself the last three minutes, not having Al in there."