PHOENIX | A week ago, Gilbert Arenas sat dejectedly at his Verizon Center locker after blowing two late, critical free throws for the second straight game. Arenas and his Washington Wizards teammates were about embark on a four-game West Coast trip, and Arenas believed the time away from familiar surroundings and expectant fans would do him good and help him regain his confidence.
On Friday against Golden State - two days after turning the ball over with three seconds left in a loss to the Sacramento Kings - Arenas had his best game in two-plus years. He scored a season-high 45 points, handed out 13 assists and carried the Wizards to a 118-109 win over the Warriors.
Arenas, who is from Los Angeles and began his NBA career with Golden State nine seasons ago, said he had felt much freer in the previous two games and finally felt like his old self Friday night.
“Since I came on this West Coast trip, I don’t have that pressure of Washington standing on my shoulders,” Arenas said Friday. “I get to play freely and game by game. Since we’ve been on this trip, I felt good. [Oracle Arena] is great. I play well in this building when I played here and since I’ve been coming back. So I felt good about tonight.”
Arenas joked that instead of returning to the District, he planned on staying on the West Coast until his teammates return for a road trip featuring stops in Utah, Portland, Denver and Los Angeles in March.
In truth, he said, he’s not worried about losing his confidence or succumbing to the pressure of playing in front of the home fans from now on.
“It’s the confidence. Once we get back, it’s too late to rewind me back,” Arenas said. “This is the trip I needed - I think we all needed it - just to get away, breathe a little bit, then go home and refocus.”
Arenas’ teammate Caron Butler also had been suffering from a lack of confidence for much of this season. Struggling to find his place in Flip Saunders’ system, Butler has been hesitant while admittedly overthinking things while trying to learn his new role. In addition to being in a different offense, Butler is now the third option behind Arenas and Antawn Jamison after playing second fiddle to Jamison while Arenas was hurt the last two years.
Butler’s biggest obstacle has been figuring out whether he should defer to others or attack when he gets the ball. And in Saunders’ offense, he is often asked to catch and shoot, which is a change from his go-to move of a stutter step, pump fake and drive to the basket. Saunders had tried to find a way to help Butler reclaim his two-time All-Star form, but finally a talk during Friday morning’s shootaround did the trick.
The coach always has each player take 40 set shots from different spots on the floor and then charts them. Butler was taking shots from 15 to 17 feet out, and Saunders pointed out that Butler was doing quite well even though he often passes up those shots in games.
“I told him he averages 36 out of 40 jump shots from those spots, and I said that’s why I get on him,” Saunders said. “When he has those open 17-footers, shoot them.”
Said Butler:”He told me I was 90 percent from midrange. So [tonight], I wasn’t second guessing myself at all. [Saunders] was like, ‘If you get this shot inside, I don’t want you looking for nobody. I want you to take the shot.’ When a coach gives you confidence like that, it’s like, all right, it’s going up…. He gave me an extreme amount of confidence this morning in shootaround, and I took it and ran with it.”
Butler recorded a season-high 28 points while also pulling down 10 rebounds and grabbing five steals. Saunders believes that the 8-16 Wizards aren’t far off from turning their season around, and he says a 45-win campaign is still a realistic goal.
More performances like the ones they got from Arenas and Butler against Golden State will go a long way toward making that happen.