- The Washington Times - Monday, December 14, 2009

The day after Gilbert Arenas missed a pair of last-second free throws that would have given his Washington Wizards a tie with the Boston Celtics, Flip Saunders dismissed the gaffe as a fluke.

Everything had gone according to the Wizards’ plan leading up to the misses, said Saunders, whose team lost by two points. He expected a different outcome if a similar scenario presented itself.

“What you do? You put the ball in the hands of your best players, and you hope that they’re going to make plays,” Saunders said. “How many times is Gil going to miss two free throws down two? Not very often.”

But on Saturday night against the Indiana Pacers, there Arenas was again. Game on the line, two free throws needed - only this time Washington clung to a 113-112 lead with 6.6 seconds left. But Arenas missed both foul shots, and the Wizards went on to lose again, this time 114-113.

Arenas was baffled and appeared to be on the verge of tears as he trudged back to the locker room in disbelief.

Free throws used to be near-gimmes for Arenas. There have been exceptions - the notorious last-second overtime misses in the 2006 playoff series vs. the Cleveland Cavaliers, when LeBron James spooked Arenas, walking up to him at the foul line and telling him misses would mean the end of the Wizards’ season. But otherwise, Arenas usually could be counted on at the line, boasting an .826 clip during his three All-Star seasons from 2004 to 2007. And even if he didn’t get to the line, Arenas made a name for himself by knocking down high-pressure, game-winning shots.

But as is evident by the blown opportunities against Boston and Indiana - and also the loss to Toronto on Dec. 4, when Arenas missed a potential game-tying layup at the overtime buzzer - this is not the Arenas of old.

When Arenas returned this season following a two-year stretch that featured three knee surgeries and only 15 regular-season games played, the Wizards didn’t expect him immediately to be as explosive as in the past. The thought was that Arenas might struggle early as he readjusted to the rigorous NBA schedule. And there were questions as to how the surgically repaired knee would hold up. But Arenas’ problems have proved to be mental rather than physical.

Arenas’ knee has been fine. He has displayed an ability to accelerate and blow past opponents. And he hasn’t shown a physical drop-off in back-to-back games.

But in the first month of the season, Arenas admittedly struggled to find a balance between going on the attack and setting up his teammates in Saunders’ system, which is much different from the Princeton offense the guard ran for six years under former coach Eddie Jordan. Arenas also is often guilty of forcing ill-advised passes.

So the missed layup and missed free throws (and a 13-for-24 showing from the line in the last five games) only compound Arenas’ frustrations and further rattle his confidence.

“The things that I thought would be hard aren’t hard,” Arenas said after Saturday’s loss. “The hard part is the little things. Free throws. Sometimes it’s careless dribbling, sometimes it’s at the top of the key. Little dumb things that are irritating me as a player. I don’t know.”

Saunders - although just as frustrated - said he remains confident in Arenas and continues to stress to Arenas the need for him to battle through setbacks.

“I talk with him just about every day about staying aggressive,” Saunders said following Friday’s practice. “He has to attack. No question about it.”

And on Saturday night, the coach said, “I have confidence in him and would put the ball in his hands again, and he’s going to keep on having it in his hand to make those plays.”

Said fellow guard DeShawn Stevenson, Arenas’ closest friend on the team: “He needs to just go play. He hasn’t played in two years - you’ve got to understand that. … But everybody in this locker room still knows what he can do. I tell him every day [we believe in him]. We tell him. Look at his numbers and the things he has done for this organization. All we can do is tell him. He’s got to believe in himself. We can’t make him believe in himself.”

Arenas and the Wizards headed to Los Angeles on Sunday to kick off a four-game road trip, and the guard said although challenging, the time away may be helpful.

“I think the West Coast is going to be good for me,” Arenas said. “Get away from the pressure of this building, the pressure of the fans. Just let me breathe a little bit.”

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