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Thursday, April 10, 2008

Wizards Cast Spell Over Celtics

The Washington Wizards are barely above .500 (41-37) and the Boston Celtics easily have the best record in the NBA (62-16) but with a 109-95 win on Wednesday the Wizards became the only team to beat Boston three times this season, claiming the season series by a 3-1 tally. Antawn Jamison led the way for Washington with 27 points and 11 rebounds and his third quarter throwdown over Kevin Garnett is sure to be replayed countless times. DeShawn Stevenson added 14 points and four assists, while Caron Butler filled up many spaces in the boxscore: 13 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds--and seven turnovers. Gilbert Arenas, playing in just his third game after returning from knee surgery, had 13 points, three assists, one rebound and four steals in 24 minutes off of the bench. He played fewer minutes than any of the starters but jacked up more shots than everyone on the team other than Jamison, shooting 5-14 from the field, including 1-5 from three point range. Paul Pierce had 28 points and seven assists in defeat, while Kevin Garnett produced 22 points, 14 rebounds and five assists. Ray Allen was the only other Celtic who reached double figures (13 points on 4-13 shooting).

After getting a lot of rest in Tuesday's win over Milwaukee, Garnett (31 minutes), Allen (37 minutes) and Pierce (37 minutes) all logged roughly their normal minutes but the Celtics but did not play with the intensity that has enabled them to lead the league in every significant defensive category; they are locked in as the number one overall seed in the Eastern Conference and, for better or worse, they are on cruise control until the postseason begins. Even with Arenas misfiring from all angles, the Wizards still shot 40-78 (.513) from the field, well above the .419 shooting percentage that the Celtics normally allow.

Jamison (+ 16), Butler (+11) and Roger Mason (+12 in only 11 minutes of action) posted the best plus/minus numbers for the Wizards; Arenas registered a +7, tied for fifth/sixth out of nine Washington players who saw action. You should not read too much into plus/minus numbers from just one game but in this particular instance the figures confirm the impression that I formed while I watched the game: the Wizards did fine when Arenas was in the game but they did just as well--or even better--when he was not in the game. The most noticeable positive contribution that Arenas made is that he played with tremendous energy, which should not be surprising considering that he sat out most of the season, has been champing at the bit to come back and is playing against players who have logged many more minutes this season than he has; Elgin Baylor and Michael Jordan each set all-time single game playoff scoring records after missing significant playing time during the preceding regular seasons and Baylor later said that the extra rest and lack of wear and tear were advantageous for him (he had been away due to military service, while Jordan was out due to a broken foot). Arenas displayed decent straight ahead burst but seemed a bit cautious when moving laterally and he noticeably did not attempt to leap explosively, eschewing several potential fast break dunk opportunities to either leave drop passes to teammates or simply lay the ball in the hoop himself.

Wizards Coach Eddie Jordan suggested after the game that we won't see the real Arenas until next October. That is probably true in terms of his minutes and his ability to make explosive moves but I think that in this game we did see a lot of the real Arenas; despite his talk of becoming more of a playmaker (and padding his assist totals by passing the ball when he had surefire layups), Arenas displayed the same shot selection that he has always had: questionable, at best. Arenas just shoots whenever he feels like it, with no regard for the flow of the game; sometimes he is hot and he has a big scoring night but many other times he shoots his team right out of games. His best minutes against Boston came in his first stint; Arenas scored on a nice drive and then he stole the ball and went coast to coast for a layup. After coming up short on a three pointer, Arenas picked up two more steals, on both occasions getting ahead of the pack only to drop off passes that resulted in easy scores for Butler and Andray Blatche. The Wizards were in the midst of a 10-5 run that tied the score at 18 before Arenas entered the game; when he checked out about nine minutes later the Wizards were up 42-27.

Arenas was not as productive when he returned to the game with 3:24 left before halftime and the Wizards enjoying a 50-40 lead. Paul Pierce hit a couple free throws that resulted from a foul committed when Arenas had still been out and on the next possession Arenas missed a pullup jumper. James Posey hit back to back three pointers, then Arenas dribbled around aimlessly before missing a jumper. Blatche corralled the rebound, Arenas received a pass and he missed a three pointer that he launched early in the shot clock. Washington led 55-53 at halftime. Arenas' energy and his steals helped the Wizards to build up a big lead but his erratic shot selection (2-7 field goal shooting) helped the Celtics to erase most of that lead. At halftime, Jamison said, "We still have a long way to go...We took some bad shots and didn't communicate on defense."

Arenas made his first appearance of the second half at the 4:46 mark of the third quarter. The Wizards had pushed their lead to 72-62. Arenas converted a nice driving layup, then missed a jumper. ESPN play by play announcer Mark Jones expressed surprise that some people say that the Wizards could be better off without Arenas and asked color commentator Jon Barry if he agrees that this is a "crazy" notion--but Barry did not dismiss the idea at all, saying of Arenas, "He's a wild card. You never know what you are going to get." What interests me about this exchange is how Jones acts like Arenas is on the same level as Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul, LeBron James and the handful of legitimate MVP candidates/franchise players in the NBA; it would indeed be "crazy" to say that you could take any of those players off of their teams and make those teams better--but injury did indeed take Arenas off of the Wizards for most of this season and the Wizards were not noticeably worse off; their record is much more negatively affected by Butler's absence than by whether or not Arenas plays, so it is perfectly reasonable to ask if the Wizards would be better off without Arenas: if they are without him by choice instead of because of an injury then they would replace him with a good player and/or a high draft pick.

Near the end of the third quarter, Arenas committed a charge, leading Barry to say that Arenas is "out of control." On the next two Washington possessions, Jamison and Stevenson each forced jumpers. When Arenas was out of action during this season, the Wizards ran some really nice plays featuring ball and player movement, so it was a bit jarring to see guys suddenly forcing shots. Playmakers like Steve Nash and Jason Kidd not only make good passes but their style of play encourages their teammates to run the floor and to make extra passes themselves; someone like Arenas has the opposite effect on team chemistry, making his teammates more inclined to force shots because they don't know when or where they will be getting the ball next. Arenas' fans will disagree with this sentiment completely but an objective observer can detect this--and the fact that Arenas made a couple passes in fast break situations does not change how he performs in the halfcourt or how his teammates react to that.

Arenas is a talented player who is capable of putting up big scoring numbers and in certain respects he must be granted the benefit of the doubt until he is completely recovered from his knee injury. However, the way that he is playing now in limited minutes is really not that much different from the way that he played before, so there is little reason to assume that the results will change any time soon: as Arenas' minutes increase he will have some big scoring outputs but he will also have some games during which he shoots an atrocious percentage and the Wizards will not likely ever be more than a .550 team (45-37) as long as he is the dominant personality on the roster.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:51 AM

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