- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 5, 2005

CHICAGO — Nearly every great player in NBA history has a signature shot, that blazing moment of excellence that quintessentially defines the player long after he is gone.

The Washington Wizards’ Gilbert Arenas doesn’t know it yet, but he might have hit that shot last night.

With the game clock dwindling to nothing, a feisty guard extending his arm and a 7-foot-plus defender doing everything possible to defend him, Arenas coolly sank a 14-footer that vanquished the Chicago Bulls 112-110. The shot siphoned the life out of the 22,250 Midwestern zealots who had watched the Bulls rally from a sizeable deficit to tie the game late and, most importantly, gave the Wizards a 3-2 lead in the first-round playoff series.

Game 6 — and a chance for the Wizards to advance out of the first round for the first time since 1982 — will be tomorrow at home. The Bulls have lost their last 10 games at MCI Center.

Despite the magnitude of the shot, the quizzical Arenas indicated no one should have been surprised by the outcome. He certainly wasn’t.

“Oh, I knew I was going to make it,” said Arenas, who finished with 16 points and eight assists. “I shoot those shots everyday. You dream about it every day when you are growing up. When you get that chance, you don’t want to blow it.”

The dramatic victory — which saw the Wizards blow a 22-point lead in the third quarter and a 10-point lead in the game’s final 42 seconds — put the Wizards in position to become the ninth team in league playoff history to lose the first two games but rally to win the series. It happened most recently last season when the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference semifinals.

If the Wizards can close out the series tomorrow, they will hand the Bulls their first opening-round playoff loss since 1987. It also will end the Bulls’ string of 27 consecutive first-round victories in which they have held the homecourt advantage.

The Wizards last advanced beyond the first round when they beat New Jersey 2-0 in 1982. Arenas was just 3 months old.

“We’re happy about coming in here and doing what we needed to do, which was to get a win tonight or Sunday,” Wizards coach Eddie Jordan said. “It was a great effort on our part. However, we’re not satisfied with the way we closed it out.”

How could he be?

The Wizards, who clearly have been the superior team since the first two games here, seemed on the verge of a collapse of epic proportions.

All night long, they spliced through the Bulls’ vaunted defense with ease. Antawn Jamison’s 3-pointer put the lead at 84-62 with 3:26 to play in the third.

But the Bulls, led by Ben Gordon’s 27 points, cut the lead to 96-90 with 5:12 left in the game. The Wizards scored six straight points to restore it to double figures, seemingly putting the game out of reach.

And it would have stayed that way had the Wizards not missed four of five free throws in the final minute.

Chicago reserve Jannero Pargo hit three 3-pointers in the final 39.1 seconds, including one that tied the game at 110-110 with 5.2 seconds to play after Kirk Hinrich (23 points) missed a pair of free throws but managed to get Pargo the loose rebound.

That set the stage for Arenas.

Little-used Anthony Peeler triggered the play from the sideline and got the ball to Arenas, who was the first option. Larry Hughes (career playoff-high 33 points, nine assists) was the second.

Seconds later, with Hinrich leaping at him and Tyson Chandler (22 points, 10 boards) extending for the block, Arenas made sure it was over.

“I wasn’t going to let anyone else shoot the ball,” Arenas said. “I wasn’t going to let my teammates think about what if and what would have happened. I was going to make sure that we didn’t go into overtime.”

Bulls guard Chris Duhon, who played despite his lower back being wracked with pain, was amazed by the shot.

“Kirk did a great job getting out on him,” he said. “Tyson did a great job on coming out on him. I even think Tyson tipped it. Big-time players make big-time shots, and he is a big-time player.”

Now it’s up to Arenas and his surging teammates to make sure they come up big time again tomorrow at MCI Center, where they have dominated the Bulls.

“We don’t want to come back here,” Arenas said. “You see how this crowd has been behind this team and helped them come back. We have to make sure we come out and do a great job in Game 6. This doesn’t mean a thing if we have to come back to this building.”

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