[Note: This is a trial run of a "Player Lock" series in which Truth About It.net will spotlight one player over the course of a game. -John]
I chose to spotlight Gilbert Arenas in Saturday night’s contest between the Washington Wizards and the Cleveland Cavaliers. And why not? It was Gil’s homecoming — the first time he had played at the Verizon Center since January 2, 2010 against the San Antonio Spurs.
[To beard or not to beard? via K. Weidie]
Flip Saunders and Gilbert tested a bit of my patience, forcing me to wait … and wait for his debut. He didn’t check into the game until just a few minutes before the end of the first quarter. After making his season debut against the Knicks on Friday, Arenas indicated that he didn’t mind coming off the bench for the unforeseen future, saying, “When I come off, I just got to be ready like ‘The Microwave’.” And Wizards fans in D.C. were hungry for whatever he had cooking.
When he finally hit the hardwood, Gil didn’t fit the “man on a mission” parable. It was strange. His steps were measured and deliberate. Arenas furrowed his brow and narrowed his eyes, as he locked his gaze to the far end of the court. He looked like a man who had lost something he cared about dearly. He looked like a guy trying to find a loved one in a crowd.
However, it seemed that he quickly found whatever it was he had been looking for. Gilbert grabbed a pass from Al Thornton and sank his first shot (a three-pointer). “He’s going to have a big game,” I thought.
Gilbert missed his next four shots, so the game — his game — wasn’t going as well as I had hoped it would.
There was a comical exchange between Arenas and Hilton Armstrong in the second quarter. The Cavaliers were in transition and there was some confusion on the defensive end: Armstrong floated out toward the three-point line to cover the ball, Gilbert followed leaving Ryan Hollins wide-open right underneath the basket. After the flush, Arenas threw his hands up in frustration, stared at Armstrong, and muttered what must have been acerbic criticism in Armstrong’s direction.
The roles were reversed on the Cavaliers’ next offensive play. Gilbert played the Gibson-Hollins P&R terribly, isolating Armstrong between the roll man (Hollins) and the driving Gibson. Despite being fouled by Armstrong, Gibson finished the three-point play. After this sequence, Armstrong tossed his hands up in disgust and looked at Gilbert, begging to know how he got beaten so badly.
Later, in one of his few explorations into the painted area, Gilbert shot a quick cross-court pass in the direction of Andray Blatche. It was high and wide and only succeeded in knocking over a fan’s beer. It was an unnecessary pass and an unfortunate turnover, but Arenas flashed a smile as he backpedaled on defense. Happy Gil was fine with me. It’s nice to know he’s still capable of enjoying the game.
Gilbert didn’t seem to shy away from contact. This was surprising, because he made baseline cuts with caution and curled gingerly around screens. While the other nine players on the court charged with spirit, Gilbert Arenas seemed unsure of his footing, as if he was trying to run on ice. Perhaps he was looking for contact to convince himself that he was physically capable of playing a starters’ minutes. But, it might be more likely that he was simply not able to avoid it.
In fact, Buck and Phil (Wizards TV guys Steve Buckhantz and Phil Chenier) revealed that Arenas had gained 15 pounds since the start of preseason. Even outside his wider build, Gilbert didn’t quite look like himself. He lacked the necessary explosiveness, and worse, the confidence that has for so long been synonymous with “Gilbert Arenas.”
It’s kind of a big deal. After his regular season debut versus the New York Knicks, Gilbert said:
“It’s really been a long time. [The team] kept yelling for me to be aggressive and I was like, ‘I forgot how to.’ “
That’s not what you want from your franchise player. One particular example of The Awkward Arenas sticks out in my mind: In the fourth quarter, in crunch time, he bobbled a pass near the elbow. After securing possession of the ball, Arenas looked poised to take it to the hoop. But before he was able to put one foot in front of the other, that personal doubt — a completely different monster than the doubt of others — took over. He hesitated for a fraction of a second, and when he finally made his move, he fumbled the ball away.
After the game, our very own Adam McGinnis caught up with Flip Saunders and asked him how Gilbert has adapted to the team concept. Flip responded:
“At times I thought he turned down shots that he should have taken, we end up (sic) as a team getting a worse shot.”
Listen, I still think that Gilbert has the talent to have a great impact on this Wizards team. If they are going to find success, it is a must. However, it’s pretty clear that he’s not ready to contribute at a high level just yet. He’s anxious, unsure, and still recovering from a laundry list of injuries — legitimate or fabricated. I’m not worried about his poor shooting percentages. Those will climb as he gets more repetitions, more minutes, and more opportunities. Hopefully, his distinctive bravado will follow suit.
Oh, on a positive note:
Gilbert’s court awareness is right on point. He delivered a number of crisp, pinpoint passes. There should no longer be any questions about whether or not Gilbert can play the role of the facilitator. He can, and can do so effectively. His numbers won’t show this (just three assists and two turnovers against Cleveland; one assist and zero turnovers the night before in New York), but like Bob Bellotti reminded us, not everything that happens on the basketball court can be captured in the box score.