- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 30, 2006

Gilbert Arenas settled his teammates down at halftime of last night’s game against the Orlando Magic. The Wizards point guard wanted to ensure that they were focusing only the next 24 minutes of the game they were playing, not the frivolity of being in first place with more than 50 games left to play.

“I told these guys, ‘Don’t worry about first place because it’s only 29 games into the season,’ ‘ Arenas said, shortly after the Wizards came from behind to defeat the Orlando Magic 112-111 in front of a sellout crowd of 20,173 at Verizon Center.

“We were talking amongst each other and we said, ‘Let’s just go out there and do what we’ve been doing,’ ‘ Arenas added. “That doesn’t mean anything to us. We’re not going to win the championship by just getting into first place. It’s just something that the papers are going to write about.”

He then let out a wry smile, knowing that he had just told an unadulterated truth.

With Arenas scoring 14 of his game-high 36 points in the fourth quarter, the Wizards — winners of 13 of their last 16 games — gained sole possession of first place in the Southeast Division. It marks the first time a Washington team has occupied that position at this point in the season since the Bullets won the Atlantic Division in 1979.

The hottest offensive team in the league in the last month, the Wizards (17-12) had to battle defensively in the second half after trailing the Magic 63-59 at intermission.

The Wizards held the Magic to 48 points on 17-for-41 shooting in the second half. Orlando (17-14) dropped to second in the division.

Despite winning, the Wizards — who at the start of December trailed Orlando by six games — remain focused.

“It’s a great win for us,” said reserve guard Antonio Daniels, who won a championship with San Antonio. “We get on the plane and celebrate and in the morning we’re thinking about Milwaukee. You can’t afford to get too high and too low. But the confidence is growing game by game.”

Said Wizards coach Eddie Jordan: “You can ask anybody, being in first place was not a big issue. We are not looking at first place as much as we are looking at playing well and executing. That’s what we’re looking at.”

Arenas finished the game with a season-high nine rebounds and eight assists. Antawn Jamison notched 25 points and 11 rebounds and Caron Butler finished with 20 points and four assists.

Arenas’ effort drew rave review from Orlando’s Keyon Dooling, who saw most of it up close and personal.

“They’ve got a little bird down there named Gilbert who’s not too bad,” Dooling said. “He’s one of those guys who’s special. He’ll go down in history as being one of the greatest. He showed his greatness in the second half. He just turned it on and it’s almost impossible to guard him.”

In a fourth quarter in which neither team led by more than five points, Orlando’s Jameer Nelson (15 points) gave the Magic a 108-107 lead.

With his team trailing 112-108, Dooling — who along with Hedo Turkoglu and Dwight Howard all scored 20 points — made a 3-pointer with 3.7 seconds remaining.

Then Butler, the Wizards’ best free-throw shooter (88.3 percent), missed both free throws to give the Magic one more shot at winning the game.

“Honesty, I just mentally messed up,” said Butler, who sat the bench for most of the middle of the fourth quarter. “Just sitting over there for a while and I just lost focus for a minute. But we were able to get the win, and that’s what matters most. That’s something that will never happen again.”

Fortunately for the Wizards, it didn’t matter.

Following a time out with 2.6 seconds remaining, Dooling got the ball and launched a runner near the foul line that was errant.

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