If the Washington Wizards had to settle for a comeback ending, they couldn’t have asked for a better scenario Saturday night against the visiting Detroit Pistons.
Game on the line, time running out, ball in Gilbert Arenas‘ hands.
But unfortunately, the Wizards got everything but the happy ending. Arenas made his long-awaited return from a third knee surgery. Washington rallied from a 15-point deficit in the third quarter to take the lead. But former Wizards forward Kwame Brown blocked Arenas’ potential game-winning 3-pointer, then Caron Butler missed the putback as time ran out, and Washington fell 98-96.
Arenas - who last played on April 27, 2008, before his gimpy left knee forced him out of the Wizards’ final two playoff games against Cleveland - logged 30 minutes and finished with 15 points, 10 assists and just one turnover. He missed Washington’s first 73 games after undergoing knee surgery in September, the third operation on the knee in less than 18 months.
He made only three of 12 attempts from the field and just wished he could’ve had the last shot - the blocked fall-away 3-pointer with 2.3 seconds left - back for a do-over.
“It was one of those mental errors - haven’t played in a while. I don’t know what I was thinking,” Arenas said. “I could’ve called a timeout, could’ve gone for the easy two. But somehow, I got behind that 3-point line and tried to jack it. I tried to use the ball to get some space and who I am to get a call, but Kwame was there. It was a great defensive play. My second time back, and 0-2 in a return.”
After receiving clearance for full activity Feb. 16, Arenas waffled on coming back this season. But he decided early this week that he would rather test out his knee now rather than enter next season with doubts.
And as he prepared for the Pistons, he received an extra word of motivation earlier Saturday.
“I got a text from [former Wizards coach] Eddie Jordan, who told me: ‘Just go out there and let the game come to you. Don’t expect to go out there and score 30, or don’t expect anything, just play the game the way it’s supposed to be played.’ ”
Armed with that advice, Arenas handed out assists on the Wizards’ first four baskets of the game.
On the fifth time down the court, Arenas looked for his own shot. Caron Butler got trapped in the left corner along the baseline and threw the ball out to Arenas at the top of the key for a 3-pointer that barely moved the net. The shot gave the Wizards’ an 11-2 lead and forced a Pistons timeout.
After the initial charge, the Wizards’ attack fizzled and the Pistons went on a 17-8 run to tie the game at 19-19. Second-year point guard Javaris Crittenton relieved Arenas during a timeout with 2:09 remaining in the first quarter. Detroit exited the timeout and used a 15-6 burst during a four-minute span that lasted until the 9:07 mark of the second quarter to build a 37-29 lead and went in at halftime up 60-53.
Arenas played the entire third but couldn’t help his team overtake Richard Hamilton and the Pistons. Hamilton lit Washington up for 16 of his 31 points - knocking down four 3-pointers - in the third.
Detroit led 84-72 heading into the fourth. But the Wizards - with Arenas on the bench - went on an 11-2 charge in the opening 4:06 of the quarter to pull within 86-83. Arenas re-entered the game with 7:35 remaining, hit a pair of free throws and assisted a McGuire slam to help his team pull ahead 87-86 with 6:28 to play.
The Pistons reclaimed the lead and stretched their advantage to 94-89 before the Wizards rallied again. Pulling his team within a point of Detroit, Arenas dished to Blatche for a jam with 26.3 seconds left. After Hamilton made a pair of foul shots, the Pistons intentionally fouled Arenas before he could attempt a 3 on the ensuing inbounds play. Arenas made the first foul shot, missed the second and got his own rebound. With Brown closing in on him, he launched a 3-pointer. Butler scooped up the block but air-balled the putback.
“I felt tonight we were much more competitive,” Wizards coach Ed Tapscott said. “We came in playing the game very efficiently. At the end, we just needed another possession.”