Monday, December 29, 2003

Gilbert Arenas was back on the practice court yesterday for the Washington Wizards, but both player and team will have to sleep on it before they decide whether he’s ready to play in tonight’s game against the Atlanta Hawks at MCI Center.

“Practice is the easy part,” Arenas said after his first practice in two weeks. “When I wake up in the morning I’ll know if I’m ready to play or not. But I’m not going to rush it this time. If I wake up in the morning and I’m not sore, that means I’m ready to play.”

That was the problem earlier this month when he returned to action too soon following his strained abdomen injury on Nov.22. He won’t make the same mistake again.

Arenas, who leads the Wizards in scoring (20.0) and assists (5.4), missed eight games after suffering the injury, but felt he was capable of playing against Minnesota on Dec.12. Arenas quickly realized he had not healed completely when he aggravated the injury, which sidelined him for the past six games. He has not played in 14 of the team’s last 15 games.

Arenas said he did not have his wind following practice, but Wizards coach Eddie Jordan liked what he saw from the player whom the Wizards signed to a $64million contract this summer.

“He was explosive, he was the Gilbert that we know,” Jordan said. “He felt very comfortable on the floor. That gives us some thought that he might play tomorrow.”

It was clear Arenas still isn’t 100 percent. He looked ahead to a date he has circled on his calendar — Friday’s game against his old team, Golden State — and indicated he might not be ready by then.

“It would be a selfish move on my part if I still wanted to play and I couldn’t be myself,” Arenas said. “I’m going to think it through. If I can’t go out there and perform at 100 percent I’m not going to do it.”

Still, Arenas’ guarded optimism was welcome news to anyone associated with the Wizards (8-20), losers of 12 of their last 14 games and in the midst of their fourth four-game losing streak this season.

The Wizards haven’t accumulated losses this prolifically since the ill-fated 2000-01 season, when they set a franchise record with 63. That team was 5-23 after 28 games.

However, no one expects this team to be that bad, especially when Arenas and last season’s leading scorer, Jerry Stackhouse (knee surgery), return to full strength. Nonetheless, going into last night’s games only two teams — Orlando (8-23) and Atlanta (8-24) — had worse records than the Wizards.

Jordan said the Wizards’ latest loss, 100-86 to Chicago on Saturday, marked the first time the team hadn’t played hard this season. Players started pointing fingers. After the game, leading scorer Larry Hughes said the Wizards “had to stop all the laughing and joking” in the locker room because “this [stuff] ain’t funny.”

Backup forward Kwame Brown said the shorthanded Wizards don’t strike fear in their opponents.

“We have to go out and play so much harder because you get nothing,” Brown said. “Everybody looks at us as the worst team in the league. Fact is, everybody is a little unsure about everything right now. Everybody is upset that we’re losing, that we’re still stuck on eight wins.”

Ever the optimist, Arenas sees the angst of his teammates as a plus.

“That means they still care,” he reasoned. “They’re not just going out there and losing games and saying, ‘OK, let’s get on the bus, the plane and go home.’ If they’re fighting, grunting and still getting mad, that means they still want to win.”

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