- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 26, 2008

To the charge the team sometimes performs more effectively with Gilbert Arenas on the bench, the Wizards are guilty.

The charge is expressed on talk shows and in hushed tones in Tony Cheng’s neighborhood, as if the walls of the Verizon Center have listening devices planted in them.

The charge is not entirely fair, if you consider the defenselessness of being a one-legged basketball player.

Arenas, who twice has undergone surgery to his left knee since last offseason, should not be playing in these playoffs.

That he has returned sooner than he should in a contract year speaks of his deep desire.

That he tried to be what he could not be in Game 2 speaks of a failure to adjust to his physical limitations.

His questionable status going into Game 4 tomorrow afternoon is a peripheral issue, hardly life-threatening to a team that posted a 23-16 record during the regular season with a starting lineup of Antonio Daniels, DeShawn Stevenson, Caron Butler, Antawn Jamison and Brendan Haywood.

The gimpy Arenas appears to be coming to terms with his diminishing role.

Arenas, as head cheerleader, is readying to be the conduit to the crowd.

“If I have to play three or four minutes to get everybody excited, then that’s what I have to do,” he said yesterday.

It is no punch to the gut of the team, if the truth be known.

The Wizards became a different team out of necessity without Arenas this season. They moved the ball better without him. They depended on each other more without him. They took fewer quick shots, which meant fewer fastbreak points for the opposition and fewer possessions in a game. Not surprisingly, the points-allowed column of the Wizards improved.

Butler became the team’s facilitator on offense in Arenas’ absence. He showed he could lead a team while stuffing the stat sheet.

With the offense often starting with Butler, the players’ cuts to the basket were sharper, the backside screens more precise, because the ball would be delivered on cue.

With Arenas, or with any big scorer on the floor, a team inevitably takes its orders from the lead player. Arenas is not that player now, although the Wizards still seemed to be deferring to him in the first two games of the series.

This is not to make the Grand Canyon-like leap and suggest the Wizards are a stronger team without Arenas. Nor is it to imply the Wizards should let Arenas walk this summer and use his maximum contract to bolster the roster elsewhere.

It is merely to note that Arenas, if healthy, can get a shot whenever he wants, and players of that ilk usually learn that less is sometimes more only with time.

Going into Game 3, who do you think Jamison, Haywood and Eddie Jordan were in part referring to when they said the team needed to be more disciplined and organized on offense and not have the ball glued to one side of the floor?

Arenas heeded the advice and provided several nifty passes to teammates before the pain in his left knee prompted his early departure.

Butler was the team’s catalyst, as he so often was during the regular season, finishing with 17 points, four assists and two steals while exhibiting lots of grit.

His driving layup late in the first half was a gem that sent the crowd into an ear-ringing tizzy. Late in the third quarter, Butler stole the ball from LeBron James and capped the sequence with a dunk.

Butler is not as sharp as he was in January, when he showed he had the fortitude and skill level to be a franchise player before injuries set him back. But he still has a fire in his belly and a fearless attitude. He still has the capacity to make plays that change the course of a game.

With Arenas virtually incapacitated, it is left to Butler to show the Wizards the way.

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