- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Aside from his 24-point performance in Game 1, any semblance of the Gilbert Arenas of old has been absent in the Washington Wizards’ first-round Eastern Conference series with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

In the three games that followed, Arenas averaged just 6.3 points. In Game 4 on Sunday, Arenas took only two shots in the first half and three more in the third quarter.

But despite his struggles and tentativeness, the Wizards still have confidence in Arenas’ late-game capabilities. That was evident Sunday with Washington trailing 97-95 and less than a minute left. There was Arenas — still hobbled by a bone bruise and pinched nerve in his surgically repaired left knee — with the ball in his hands and his number called.

Arenas backed Cleveland’s Delonte West down, posted him up and hit an off-balance turnaround jumper off the glass to tie the game. Arenas later said he hoped just to get to the foul line.

West answered with 5.4 seconds left on the clock, hitting a 3-pointer that gave Cleveland a 100-97 lead. With the Wizards back on the offensive, Arenas had the ball again. He backed West down a few feet, hesitated and fired a 3-pointer. The ball glanced off the left of the rim as the Cavaliers took a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. Cleveland can wrap it up tonight at Quicken Loans Arena.

Arenas later said he should have shot a few dribbles sooner. He said his knee felt good that day and that it didn’t affect his shot selection earlier in the game.

“This is not my team,” said Arenas, who missed 66 regular-season games. “Not this year. This is [Antawn Jamison’s] and [Caron Butler’s] team. What have I done this year? Who am I to be taking a bunch of shots?”

The stance differed from the position Arenas took on the eve of Game 1, when he declared he was still “an assassin. I get buckets.”

And the conflicting pictures have appeared evident this series. At times, the Wizards have had a rhythm going only to stall when Arenas takes the court. In the last two games, both started by Arenas, the Wizards have struggled to find that rhythm until he leaves and his teammates go on the attack. And other times still, Arenas has set the tone for a fast-paced attack with highlight-worthy passes and occasional big baskets.

Coach Eddie Jordan said the disjointed play comes from his players still working to reacclimate themselves to the guard’s style.

Jordan has admittedly struggled to juggle Arenas’ minutes, trying not to overextend the guard as he continues to regain his health. He second-guessed the play he drew up for Arenas’ potential game-tying shot Sunday.

“I thought about it once we had inbounded the ball. I said, ‘You know, this should’ve been an Antawn or Caron moment.’ But you know, Gil had just made a tough shot, and he’s had that magic for us before, so I went to the well again.”

Despite Arenas’ struggle to contribute consistently during this series, he still has the trust of his coach and teammates.

“He is certainly in a different role for us, but he definitely is a catalyst,” Jordan said. “He’s shown he can still do some things, in the Philly game, in the first game of the series, in the first game back here. He’s still the straw that stirs the drink. But I just thought that Antawn could’ve been the receiver or Caron could have been the recipient. It entered my mind.”

Jamison and Butler didn’t give the play call a second thought, however, because they’re still confident of Arenas’ abilities.

“Our franchise player had a great opportunity at the end of the game, and a shot he usually makes just didn’t fall,” Butler said.

Jamison agreed.

“Gilbert’s our man,” he said. “If the situation presents itself again and if the coach draws the play up for him, we’re not going to second-guess him. That’s been our identity the last couple of years, and when Coach said that’s what we’re going to do, nobody had any second thoughts whatsoever.”

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