- The Washington Times - Monday, March 30, 2009

Gilbert Arenas is ever the showman with the wide grin on his face that could light up a crowd of zombies.

And “Night of the Living Dead” is what the throng has come to be during this abysmal season.

So there was Arenas on Saturday night, reviving the numb looks in his midst, giving the season-ticket holders of the Wizards every reason to renew their packages next season.

He played with an efficiency and flair that has been missing this season.

No, he did not lead the Wizards to victory. That would have been too perfect, unreasonable to expect of a team that had two backups in its starting lineup and is stuck in the clutches of a nightmarish season.

But it is not too hard to imagine the Wizards winning that game if Arenas were in something approximating top form and able to play 35 to 40 minutes.

As it was, the Wizards nearly pulled out a game against an opponent that was fighting for its playoff life.

And that was mostly because of the way Arenas managed the game.

You almost forget how easy Arenas can make the game look, how effortlessly he gets easy baskets for his teammates.

You appreciated Arenas even more after Javaris Crittenton, who looks to be a keeper, was unable to hit Caron Butler with a pass in stride on a fast break in the first half.

A number of the talk-show gabbers questioned Arenas’ decision to return to the court at this late date in a lost season.

But there he was looking fluid and comfortable, doing what he could to dispel the doubts going into the offseason.

No matter how hard he practices, no matter how many times he plays in five-on-five pick-up games, Arenas knew there was no way to duplicate the conditions of an NBA game.

He had to come back to start seeing where he is, even if he vacillated on his return right up until game time.

What is in his head is all part of it, too. When you have undergone three surgeries on your left knee in two years, you are sentenced to being a psychological mess, to wondering whether the knee is going to hold up this time.

The last thing Arenas needs down the stretch is another setback that would trigger more speculation that his days as an All-Star are done.

He is heeding the advice of his trainer and doctors. He is being smart this time. He is not going to play in back-to-back games. He is not going to try to be a hero. He is not going to push himself when pulling back is the wiser approach.

That was the Arenas in evidence against the Pistons. He did not impose himself on the proceedings. He was not worried about putting up big numbers. His principal focus was to get a sense of his place in a game that has been so cruel to him the last two years.

And that will remain his objective these last two and a half weeks of the season. If he can get through this period without experiencing another setback, he will be that much more mentally stronger going into next season.

Those who argued that Arenas should have sat out the rest of the season saw the issue in the context of the team’s record.

But there is a significant mental component to all this.

Arenas needs to be playing because that is what he is, a professional basketball player. And if you are physically able to play, then that is what you do, the record of the team be darned.

Arenas bounced right up the few times he was knocked to the floor Saturday. He showed a few bursts of his previous self. He played to sighs of relief all around the arena.

It was an essential first step for him, the franchise and the previously deflated fan base.

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