It had been awhile since The World's Most Famous Arena crackled like it did Friday night. Okay, it's not like New Yorkers stopped loving basketball, but they'd been coming to Madison Square Garden mostly to see the Other Guy, to see Shaq and Kobe and Dirk and A.I. That's what happens when you haven't won a playoff game in four years, or a playoff series since 2000. So they were delighted to come and see their Knicks Friday night, to see if Larry Brown has much of anything to work with, to see if big and talented Eddy Curry can finally replace Patrick Ewing as a worthy man in the middle, to see if free-flowing shooters Stephon Marbury, Jamal Crawford and Quentin Richardson can bag what they're doing and play Brown's way.
What they got the first half, however, was an eyeful of the Washington Wizards, and particularly Gilbert Arenas, whose 27 points, 6 rebounds and 3 steals and overall control of the game led Washington to a second road victory in two games, and served as an early-season reminder that the Wizards are going to be pretty good, and Arenas is, well, great.
It's okay to say it now: Arenas is a great player. Not potentially great. Great. Right now. We could see it coming last year, especially late in the regular season. We could see more of it in the playoffs, which is the time in the NBA players have to validate what might appear to be greatness. And we can see it now, the confidence, the control, the gamesmanship, the ability to trump opponents with bigger reputations, such as Stephon Marbury.
"We kind of rode his coattails," Coach Eddie Jordan said of the way his guys played off Arenas in Washington's 86-75 victory. "He carried us. We went from a tie game to up 11 because he got going. Now, they hang on to him and say, 'Thanks Gil.' We should play with poise; we've got veterans now with playoff experience. And that should help us in back-to-back games. We've got a good mix of scorers and defenders. And we've got a guy who can make everybody better. When that thing got real tight tonight, it was, 'Thanks Gil.' "
Jordan was quick to caution not to read too much into this. The Wizards beat a really young Raptors team, he said, and a fairly young Knicks team. Still, road victories are hard to come by, especially when the house is as juiced as the Garden was for Larry Brown and Eddy Curry. And the Wizards controlled the game, even when they trailed briefly, by 61-60 and 63-61. The Knicks, though they are 0-2, like what they have but they know it's going to take awhile to make the pieces a team.
The Wizards? Opponents figure to take advantage of the nights like Friday when they get outrebounded, 59-35, and 29-10 on the offensive boards. But one reason the Knicks had so many offensive rebounds is the Wizards held them to 32.9 percent shooting. Jordan will take that kind of defense every night. "Now is the time for this team, with all the veterans we have, to play winning basketball," Jordan said.
It was during one particularly impressive stretch that Knicks President Isiah Thomas nodded toward the visiting Wizards and said, "You know they're going to be pretty good, don't you?" The people around the league who think the Wizards can hold their own, even with New Jersey and Milwaukee and Cleveland figuring to be dramatically improved, are impressed more than anything with Washington's talent, versatility and depth of perimeter play.
Presuming reasonable health, there's no end to Jordan's versatility in the way he can deploy his guards and swing players. Arenas has gone from potentially one of the best players in the league, to a top 15 player. He has surpassed Marbury in the frequency in which he can take over games against quality opponents, though Marbury certainly had his say Friday night.
New York is the perfect place for a guard duel, and Marbury and Arenas got into one in the second half. Marbury would make one of those New York City off-the-glass driving layups and Arenas would answer with something sweeter, twice deep three-pointers. When the Knicks were within 79-72 with four minutes to play, it was Arenas who daringly stole the ball from Marbury after the inbounds play, which led to Michael Ruffin hitting a critical foul shot. It was Arenas who drew the defensive double-team that allowed Antawn Jamison to hit a wide-open three-pointer with three minutes left to seal it.
So, the Wizards have, for the first time since the 1996-97 when Chris Webber had his best season in Washington, a great player who isn't yet in his prime. That's forever in the NBA's time line. "You can definitely say, 'great player' of Gilbert now," teammate Jarvis Hayes said. "He does what great ones do, in practice, after practice, in the games. You can definitely say it now. Look at the way he leads, which has to be important. I missed a three-pointer on the break and he said, 'Shoot it every time.' I had a pretty tough first half, but the way he talked to me and stayed with me meant a lot."
And as Jamison said, "He's hands-down the best player on this team, and hands down a top-five guard in this league. But still, you get the feeling he's flying under the radar."
But the season is too long, and Arenas has too many chances, and too many good players around him to fly under it much longer.