DALLAS | Washington Wizards fans have wondered all summer and preseason which Gilbert Arenas they would get for the 2009-10 NBA season. The player who made only cameo appearances the past two seasons while recovering from three knee surgeries? The three-time All-Star, who could score with the best of them? Something in between?
Shortly before his Wizards tipped off the season Tuesday night against the Dallas Mavericks, coach Flip Saunders admitted that he too was curious.
“I’m like everyone else - I’m waiting to see,” Saunders said. “I think he’s going to come out and I think he’ll be aggressive in the things that he does. Having not played [completely healthy since April 2007], I’m sure he’s excited to play, and I’m sure he’ll get into a rhythm.”
Saunders got exactly what he wanted - the former MVP candidate - as Arenas led Washington to a 102-91 victory. The guard, playing in his first opener in two years, recorded a team-high 29 points and nine assists, fueling the Wizards to their first season-opening victory since 2005.
“If you want to be good, you’ve got to win on the road,” Arenas said. “It feels good to win, but we’ve still got a lot more to play.”
Three other Wizards players also scored in double digits, giving Saunders his first win as Washington’s coach.
It was as good of a start as could have been hoped for by the Wizards, who played without two-time All-Star power forward Antawn Jamison. Jamison suffered a partially dislocated shoulder in a preseason game Oct. 14 and is expected to miss at least the first five games of the regular season.
Fabricio Oberto got the start in place of Jamison, but his game can’t match the production of Jamison, who last season averaged 22.2 points and 8.9 rebounds. Oberto was effective, however, recording five points, three rebounds and two assists in addition to posting a plus-minus of 15 in 17 minutes. Meanwhile, Andray Blatche came off the bench and did his best Jamison impersonation, recording 20 points and seven rebounds.
Early on, Brendan Haywood - who like Arenas missed the bulk of last season - got the Wizards going, scoring seven of their first 15 points. The Wizards and Mavericks entered the second quarter knotted at 21-21 before Blatche surged in the second quarter, scoring 10 points to help his team take a 56-50 lead into halftime. The Mavericks never came closer than three points in the third quarter and spent the majority of the fourth quarter down by at least 10.
With 6:22 left, Arenas dumped the ball into the paint to Oberto and then cut toward the basket; the Argentine hit the point guard in stride as he knifed through the lane and scored on a layup that put Washington up 87-77. The Wizards continued rolling, getting late contributions from Randy Foye (19 points off the bench) and Caron Butler (16 points, eight rebounds).
“The guys were really committed as far as what we were doing,” Saunders said. “We stopped their turnovers, we rebounded the ball and things that we talked about: execute offensively, make big shots.”
In addition to the offensive outburst, an improved defensive effort also paved the way for a victory. The Wizards held their counterparts to 39.5 percent shooting and out-rebounded them 46-42.
“We’ll take credit for the defense, where everybody’s been kicking us in the [butt],” Arenas said. “We played it and did a great job holding them off.”
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