Marty Burns
Thursday April 24th, 2008

It has to be one of the toughest decisions for an NBA coach in the playoffs. Do you let a star player who has been injured come back and assume a dominant role with the team? Or do you try to work him back in a way so as to not disrupt the chemistry that got you to the postseason in the first place?

That's the dilemma Wizards coach Eddie Jordan is facing these days with star point guard Gilbert Arenas. So far, other than a brief first-half flurry in Game 1, Arenas has not been able to get it going against the Cavaliers. After fading down the stretch in the series opener, Agent Zero had just seven points (on 2-of-10 shooting) in Game 2 while playing with a sore right wrist.

Partly as a result of Arenas' struggles, the Wizards were down 2-0 and facing a virtual must-win situation in Thursday night's Game 3 at Verizon Center.

"They beat us down," Arenas admitted after his team's 30-point loss Monday. "They held home court and that's what home-court advantage is all about. We've got two at home and we've got to win those two."

Washington hasn't looked at all like the lively group that came together as a team -- highlighted by back-to-back victories against the Celtics in January -- after Arenas went down in mid-November with a knee injury that cost him 66 games. It certainly hasn't backed up all that trash talk.

The Wizards are shooting just 39 percent from the floor, including 22.5 percent from three-point range, against the Cavs. They have registered just 32 assists to go with 27 turnovers. Other than Antawn Jamison and Brendan Haywood, Washington's key players have been AWOL.

Washington's sudden ineptness is even more puzzling in light of the competition. Cleveland has struggled to get any consistency all season, and was sputtering heading into the playoffs. The Cavs might have LeBron James, but they haven't exactly been the Celtics or Pistons this season.

Arenas' return clearly has messed up the Wizards' chemistry to some extent. For better or worse, the three-time All-Star point guard demands the ball. His history of taking the big shot (and his outsized personality) has led his teammates to sit back and watch too much.

Arenas dazzled early in Game 1, coming off the bench to hit four three-pointers -- including a ridiculous attempt from 10 feet beyond the arc. He looked like he was ready to go mano-a-mano with James for the right to be considered the best "fourth-quarter closer" in the NBA.

In retrospect, however, it might have been the worst thing that could have happened for the Wizards. All it did was raise false hopes.

Arenas basically has been a liability since that hot start. Perhaps tired from not having played much this season, he seemed to lose his legs at the end of Game 1. When Washington needed his leadership late in a close game, he misfired badly on four key possessions.

In Game 2, Arenas was just plain bad all game. He kept jacking up shots even though he wasn't making them. Perhaps because of the knee, he was unable to drive to the rim when the bigger and stronger LeBron crowded him on defense.

Arenas' situation leaves Jordan in a dilemma. He surely doesn't want to give up too soon on his star player. Arenas, even at less than 100 percent, is still dangerous with the ball in his hands at the end of the game.

Plus, there is always the little matter of Arenas' impending free agency. Jordan surely does not want to tick off his star player at this point. Arenas, after all, is a great weapon when healthy.

But right now, Arenas doesn't appear to be fully healthy. And the Wizards don't seem to be on the same page anymore as they wait for the old Agent Zero to show up. It's similar to the situation the Kings faced four years ago when Chris Webber came back after a long layoff from a knee injury and disrupted their chemistry just enough to make them a worse team in the postseason.

Jordan might be better off keeping Arenas on the bench in Game 3, or at the very least giving him a shorter leash. Maybe play him five minutes or so, and if the ball stops moving again or Arenas can't stay in front of his man, pull the plug. After all, the Wizards were a pretty good team without Arenas this season.

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