When the Washington Wizards emerged from a timeout in need of a game-winning play with the score knotted at 102-102 and 10.5 seconds left, Gilbert Arenas walked onto the floor, rubbing his hands together. A three-time All-Star, Arenas noticed the Milwaukee Bucks players looking at him and talking to each other to ensure they had accounted for him.
Arenas just laughed to himself.
"I was sitting there thinking, 'Y'all worried about me, but y'all 'bout to be in for a rude awakening. This is Earl's show,' " Arenas chuckled later.
Sure enough, Earl Boykins - the 5-foot-5 backup who had put his team on his diminutive shoulders down the stretch - was in charge. Boykins drove, pulled up for a jumper and drew a foul with a second left. He proceeded to make both foul shots for a 104-102 victory Wednesday night.
It wasn't the first time Boykins saved the day. Since he suited up for the Wizards for the first time nine games ago, Washington has won five times. Four of those victories came after Boykins took charge in the fourth quarter, either with his scoring or his ball-management skills.
When Boykins stepped to the line with 17 seconds left for the free throws that gave the Wizards a 102-99 lead, it was no wonder the home crowd started chanting "M-V-P! M-V-P!"
"I'm not into all that, honestly," the soft-spoken 33-year-old said with a smile. "I'm just happy to get a win."
Boykins' coach heard the chants - and pointed them out during his postgame news conference.
"The fans are chanting MVP for Earl," Flip Saunders chuckled. "He's been like that. If you look at the games we've won, he's finished games for us."
Every time Boykins drives and makes a shot over players often a foot or more taller or drives and kicks for an easy bucket for a teammate, the Verizon Center faithful rise to their feet in applause and amazement. But Boykins, who signed Nov. 11 when the Wizards were down to one healthy point guard, said he hasn't been surprised by his impact.
"That's the reason I came here," he said. "I wanted to be a guy who could help a team win games. I'm just glad Flip and my teammates have confidence to allow me to do it."
Boykins' confidence was the reason he signed to play in Italy for a reported $3.5 million last season after he failed to get the NBA offer he desired. He experienced success but returned to the United States, still confident he could find the perfect situation after 10 seasons in the NBA. He turned down training camp invites from teams with situations he viewed as less than ideal, and he continued to work out, knowing his chance would come.
The Wizards were the right fit.
"I've always been patient. I never worry," said Boykins, who was expected to be insurance for the backcourt but now is the Wizards' leading fourth-quarter scorer. "That's just my personality. I guess I'm not an anxious person. If the Wizards wouldn't have called me, I had other teams interested and would've chose someone else."
Since Arenas is still working to regain his feel for the game, Boykins' experience made him Washington's first guard off the bench and Saunders' go-to guy in pressure situations. With the game on the line, Saunders routinely moves Arenas to shooting guard and puts the ball in Boykins' hands. He's averaging 6.9 points in the fourth quarter; Saunders pointed out that Miami star Dwyane Wade averages 7.5.
"Earl has always been a fourth-quarter player," Saunders said. "[Boykins] is probably the most unique player that's ever played."
Center Brendan Haywood was moderately familiar with Boykins' scoring capabilities before his arrival in the District. But the guard's other skills have surprised Haywood.
"[I] had no idea how crafty he is around the basket," he said. "He surprises me because he's so little but can dominate the game of basketball. You would never think somebody 5-5 can just take over games down the stretch."