By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 7, 2010; 11:53 PM
Simply by removing his warmups and heading to the scorer's table, Gilbert Arenas was able to awaken an otherwise uninterested crowd in the first quarter of the Washington Wizards' 107-102 loss to Cleveland at Verizon Center on Saturday. Arenas's every move kept the crowd and his opponents mesmerized and anxious.
"He's still Arenas," Cavaliers guard Daniel Gibson said. "You feel like at any moment at any time, he can explode on you."
Even his coach, Flip Saunders, was so enthralled that he kept Arenas on the floor during a critical fourth-quarter stretch when the Cavaliers went on a decisive 10-0 run and a fatiguing Arenas said he thought about substituting himself for Al Thornton, who had carried the team offensively for much of the night and scored a team-high 23 points.
Saunders apologized to Thornton after the game, explaining that he erred in not playing him. But the incident served as an example of the challenge that the Wizards face incorporating the three-time all-star Arenas as he returns after missing nearly a month of action with injuries to his groin and right ankle.
Arenas has come off the bench to score 31 points through his first two games but he is also attempting to regain his rhythm - with the game and his new teammates - and lose the nearly 10 pounds he said he gained while being unable to run. He is also trying to find a comfortable role in an offense that no longer is centered on his talents.
"We're trying. It's tough when a guy misses so much time, especially a guy like Gilbert, where almost everything used to be run around him. It's just a big adjustment," Kirk Hinrich said. "I don't know if I necessarily notice the rust; it's a matter of getting him acclimated with the group. We need him, we need his scoring and we all have to make a conscious effort to make him a big part of what we do down there."
With Arenas back, Thornton or Hinrich will eventually be replaced in the starting lineup. Saunders opened the first three games of the preseason with a three-guard lineup featuring John Wall, Hinrich and Arenas. "Those guys are going to be good players for us," Saunders said of Arenas, Hinrich and Wall. "They are going to have to play some together. You're hoping that those guys have an ability to close out games."
Thornton has been one of the Wizards' most efficient players through the first five games, averaging 15.2 points and 6.4 rebounds in 33.2 minutes per game, and will likely have to make another adjustment when Josh Howard returns from his left knee injury, possibly in the next month. When asked how his minutes could get reduced again, Thornton said, "I just have to come out and approach the game. I don't have any thought about that."
Although he has missed some time, Arenas has still proven to be an effective shot maker, especially in the fourth quarters, when he has scored a combined 22 points and shot 8 for 15. But Saunders said he noticed that Arenas turned down opportunities he should've taken. "I just don't want to seem like I'm shooting too much," Arenas said. "I didn't want take away from what the team has been doing."
Arenas laughed when asked how he would adjust to playing off the ball after being a point guard throughout his career. "Point guard? I was a shooting guard for a while," he said. "It's no difference. I was used to catching and shooting, but I don't get as tired and I don't turn the ball over."
Wall collected his ninth and 10th assists connecting with Arenas in the fourth quarter on Saturday. He found him open for an 18-foot jumper that put the Wizards ahead 88-85 and also for a late three-pointer. The two hooked up for a highlight when Wall stole the ball from Mo Williams and flipped a no-look pass to Arenas, who found Andray Blatche cutting to the hoop for a two-handed dunk.
The ability for Wall and Arenas to mesh is a question that will be asked all season, but it hasn't been a concern for them. "It's not a big deal for us. He's trying to help us win. I don't think it's a challenge at all. Gil can score in various ways," Wall said. "I think he's getting his rhythm back. He feels he needs to start driving more, that's going to get him to get his legs back underneath and get him used to playing with us again."
With two days to prepare for the Houston Rockets on Wednesday, Arenas will have more practice time to develop chemistry with his teammates. His unfamiliarity after just a few practices was evident in the second period, when he spotted Wall racing ahead and whipped a pass that was well in front of the rookie and went out of bounds. After the play, Arenas mouthed to Wall, "Was that too far?" Wall didn't need to reply.
The next possession, Arenas had a wicked crossover dribble that got Williams to stumble on his backside. But instead of taking an uncontested jumper, Arenas tried to find Blatche inside. Blatche, though, never moved so his pass went cross-court and knocked over a beer on the front row, leading Arenas to crack a smile.
"A couple more practices and a couple more games, I should be fine," Arenas said. "As long as I'm hitting shots, my confidence is going to keep coming."