A Game Without Gilbert
[Note: Obviously I would have liked to post this piece pertaining to Friday night's win against the Magic, the first home game after Gilbert Arenas' suspension, before Sunday's game against the Hornets ... but life happens and time is my enemy.]
Gilbert Arenas’ corner locker sat relatively empty. A couple pairs of shoes, straightened, likely by someone other than Arenas, a rubber training/physical therapy band, and an autographed basketball card of Sam Cassell taped to the back wall were all that remained. Lonely stood the area of the locker room where the media used to congregate, waiting and salivating for Gilbert to preach in his unfiltered, matter-of-fact, unguarded superstar kind of way. Not that night. Maybe not ever again.
Before the Wizards faced the Magic on Friday evening, those around the Verizon Center spoke of Gilbert in the past tense. Understandable since the banner outside of the arena featuring Arenas was removed, his jerseys taken off shelves of souvenir stands, and his image scrubbed from promotional videos and the WashingtonWizards.com website. A dramatic reaction from the franchise or a necessary message to Arenas and fans? It’s not like Gilbert’s image was completely purged. There’s still a framed photo of Arenas in the media lounge. Several pictures of him are still prevalent on a wall collage right outside of the locker room. But I can’t help but think the actions taken were more grandstanding in mind than reason, especially when a local news station was so conveniently there to film the banner removal.
Meanwhile, in the locker room before tip-off, the scene was business as usual. Antawn Jamison was getting himself hype by dancing and signing to his ipod like he usually does. When I asked Mike Miller about his new haircut, DeShawn Stevenson jokingly chimed in, “That’s Mike,” going on about how he’s known Miller since they were teenagers, when Miller had short hair and diamonds in each ear. Stevenson also spoke of a recruiting trip he took to the University of Florida when Miller was there. He said he knew right away he didn’t want to go there because Billy Donovan, whom he described as “strict as a [blank],” made him run suicide drills as a high school senior. One might chuckle, thinking Stevenson could have used some structure in his life back then, but that’s the past and I’m not here to judge … at least this time. Other Wizards were going through their usual routine, getting ready to do their job and play the game they love. The scene was less somber than what I expected, if at all.
And play the game they did. Perhaps provoked by Antawn Jamison’s passionate pre-game speech, or perhaps just because the playing surface for professional sports is often seen as an escape mechanism, the Wizards released the pressure valve and played inspired basketball. Led by Brendan Haywood’s defensive anchor, the team didn’t quit and fought harder, played more consistent than they have all season. A feel-good victory that got applauding butts out of seats and an effort from the players that regained some fan respect for the recently maligned franchise.
Immediately after the win, an unnamed Debbie Downer colleague said, “It’s just a mirage.” Maybe so. An emotionally charged effort, a struggling Magic team … there’s no reason to believe the Wizards will build off this win since they’ve failed to do so with other opportunities all season long. This franchise is in the desert with no quench for losing in sight. But the win against Orlando wasn’t a mirage, it was a much needed sip of water. No one knows if the team will continue its quest for life-sustaining H2O or scrap the experiment that has failed to produce promised results and hope to reincarnate from the ashes as something better, the latter scenario all but a sealed deal. But at least for one night, Wizards fans were treated to what they deserve, even if in the end, they will ultimately be left high and dry.
As much as we may hate to admit it, last night’s emotional victory does little to change the direction of the team. A seven point win at home will not take anyone off the trading block. Many of the players you saw come up big tonight will not be suiting up for the Wizards at this time next year. Still, a lot of these players can still do a lot to ensure that when they do leave, that they leave on a high note.
In all sports, coaches are asked if outside distractions affect their team, and 99% of the time, coaches will say that they block them out and continue to power through and focus on the task at hand. I never thought this was realistic, nor did I think it was truthful, but since I was not in the locker room, I was in no position to refute this statement. So today, when Coach Flip Saunders was asked if this week’s events were a distraction to the team, his honesty was quite refreshing. “There’s no question, it’s a distraction, from the standpoint of having to talk to people [investigators], media, and trying to talk to them wherever, that’s a distraction,” a candid Saunders said before the game. “I think what it is, it’s almost a surreal situation…a foggy type situation. But we’re doing the best we can.” Saunders also mentioned that after the confrontation on the plane between Crittenton and Arenas, he banned gambling on the team plane.
[Craig Stouffer - Washington Examiner: Wizards 104, Magic 97: Bet you didn't think that was going to happen]
Brendan Haywood’s After all, Howard did finish with 23 points and 11 rebounds. What was more remarkable than how effective Haywood was, was simply that he did it all by himself — and the Wizards stuck to the game plan and let him do it. That allowed them to focus on contesting three-pointers, and the Magic struggled from beyond the arc, hitting just 7 of 27 attempts. Wait a second, did I just describe the Wizards contesting shots and following a game plan? Must be the toxins released while my basement was floor had to be ripped up tonight following a sewer rehab project gone horribly wrong on my street. But I digress…
The Magic are surely scratching their heads after this loss. They looked to be a stop or two away from securing victory when they held the aforementioned 81-71 lead, but Washington countered with two three-pointers to make a four-point game of it, and the Magic melted down from there. A Mickael Pietrus layup extended their lead to 6, but Brandon Bass was whistled for an iffy shooting foul on Jamison on the Wizards’ ensuing possession. Bass earned a technical as he stormed off the floor, with Butler sinking the technical foul shot and Jamison converting his chances for yet another three-point possession. Fittingly enough, given Orlando’s struggles in this area of late, Washington took the lead for good when Haywood followed Caron Butler’s missed jumper, making the score 86-85. A clearly rattled Orlando team went the next 4:45 without a field goal as the Wizards extended their lead to 96-89, putting the game realistically out of reach–the way Orlando was shooting, it could not hope to surmount a three-possession deficit with 2:46 to play.
[Zach McCann - Orlando Magic Daily: Fortunately for the Orlando Magic, they can make it all better tonight]
Against the Wizards, it appeared the Magic were in their own heads. Up by double digits early in the fourth quarter, a couple of 3s or consecutive stops likely would’ve wrapped up the victory for Orlando – especially against a team in seemingly disarray such as the Wizards (though the Wizards and their fans were rocking in the fourth quarter; can’t dispute that).
As Washington started to creep back into the game, you could see Orlando begin to melt down. They stopped running their offense the way it’s supposed to be run; inside, then out. Guys started chucking up shots, players barked at officials (both Rashard Lewis and Brandon Bass were hit with technicals), and the Magic simply couldn’t get a stop or sink a field goal in the game’s waning minutes. It was a forgettable performance, to say the least. And it was the fourth forgettable performance in a row.