True Wizardry

A young and multifaceted backcourt has Washington in the playoff hunt for the first time in eight seasons
January 10, 2005

In the wee hours of New Year's Eve day, Wizards point guard Gilbert Arenas woke up in the bathtub of his Boston hotel room with his head bleeding. "Then I got out of the tub and woke up again on the living room floor," he says. The cause? A 104° fever that left him dehydrated and delirious. A few hours later Arenas was in the hospital receiving three stitches and IV fluids, and that afternoon he watched from the bench as Washington closed out 2004 with a 108-103 loss to the Celtics. "At this point it's not all about winning," said forward Antawn Jamison, who was proud of his team's tenacious effort without Arenas. "It's about when things are not going your way, you keep your composure and fight through those times."

Arenas bounced back on Sunday with 17 points in a 104-101 win over the Hawks that boosted the Wizards (16-13) to fifth place in the East. It also put them on track for 45 wins, which would be the franchise's highest total in 26 years. "We're doing it without any post presence at all," says coach Eddie Jordan, who hopes to have power forwards Kwame Brown (strained right ankle tendon) and Etan Thomas (abdominal strain) back in the rotation by next month.

Until then Washington will continue driving for its first playoff berth since 1997 on the young legs of the league's highest-scoring trio--Arenas (22.4 points per game at week's end), Jamison (20.9) and guard Larry Hughes (20.3). This is their second act together: At Golden State in 2001-02 they averaged a combined 30.3 points as the Warriors went 21-61. The key to their improved fortunes is the talented Arenas, who has finally adapted to Jordan's Princeton offense. "Last year he didn't trust the system or his teammates," says Jordan. "I used to call 95 percent of the plays, but now I'm calling 65 percent because Gilbert is running the offense. He's a true point guard."

When the Warriors drafted Arenas 31st in 2001, many dismissed him as a tweener--a shooting guard in a playmaker's body. One believer was Ernie Grunfeld, who upon taking the Wizards' G.M. job in 2003 offered Arenas all his cap space with a six-year, $64 million contract. Last year the 6'3" Arenas averaged a career-high 19.6 points despite an abdominal injury that curbed his quickness and limited him to 55 games. Now healthy, he has exhibited an explosive first step, a mature in-between game and three-point range, as well as a will to win that's unmatched in his locker room. "I may be one of the few guys who can calm him down," Hughes says. "He's not really crazy, he just gets worked up. But you want a guy who's fiery, works hard, gets on his teammates and lets everybody know he's out there to win."

Because he shares ball handling responsibilities with Hughes, Arenas was averaging only 5.1 assists, 27th in the league. (Hughes, with 5.0, was 31st.) Yet their unselfish partnership is bringing out the best in both: Hughes is fulfilling his potential as an all-around player by averaging 6.0 rebounds and a league-leading 2.79 steals, while Arenas has assumed team leadership. Celtics coach Doc Rivers compares the duo's synergy with that of Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars from the champion Pistons. "They're both athletic, quick, and you don't know who's going to bring the ball up," says Rivers. "They may be the best backcourt in the NBA."

Hughes, 25, will be a free agent this summer, and though he and Grunfeld speak optimistically about coming to terms, that may be difficult. Washington will enter the summer with six players under contract for $43 million, leaving little room. But Arenas refuses to look beyond this season. "It's time for me to make the playoffs," says the 23-year-old, whose knack for burying last-second shots is bound to frighten any postseason opponent. "That's where everyone gets his recognition."

COLOR PHOTOMITCHELL LAYTON/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (ARENAS) DOUBLE TROUBLE Arenas (above) and Hughes both can score, board and man the point. COLOR PHOTOAL TIELEMANS (HUGHES) [See leadin above]   [See caption above]