There are times when a halftime adjustment or official's call makes all the difference in a big game. And there are nights when you simply give your star the ball, let him work his game, dream his dream and hope the two fuse together before time runs out.
Terry Stotts gave Michael Redd the green light. Eddie Jordan gave Gilbert Arenas the freedom he's had all season. Their decisions resulted in one of those mano-a-mano shootouts that could have played out in any park just as easily as it did last night at Verizon Center.
Two of the NBA's most scintillating guards rose and fired in a game their respective teams needed badly. When their duel was done — when Arenas and Redd stopped clocking each other like two kids in a pillow fight trying to make each other groggy — the Wizards were one win away from a hyped weekend affair with LeBron James in the first round of the NBA playoffs.
"We got a couple of big rebounds and Gil took over the game," is the way Jordan described Washington's 116-103 win over Milwaukee. He took it over from Redd.
They each finished with 43 points, scored 31 of those points in the second half and went to the free throw line 19 times. But when it mattered most, when the Wizards had lost all of a 13-point lead and were staring at a deficit with less than 11 minutes left, Arenas proved who is among the top 15 players in the game and who is still looking at that group from the outside.
Jordan would not call Arenas's game a defining career moment, adding: "Gil has proven to be what he is: a bona fide major player in the NBA. . . . Let's get to another level and see what happens."
But it was nights like this one that make for good water-cooler fodder: If you had to start an expansion team today with one player, who gets the nod over the 24-year-old Arenas?
LeBron and Dwyane Wade are obvious choices. Elton Brand, Yao Ming and a healthy Amare Stoudemire are part of the conversation. And age and all, you would be crazy to pass on veteran stars Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki. But that's it. A list of less than 10 after Arenas, who gets the nod here over Carmelo Anthony, Tony Parker, Vince Carter or 29-year-old Chauncey Billups.
Of course, this comes from someone who thought this was Redd's game in the third quarter. He was shoving the Wizards out of the fifth spot all by himself, launching left-handed, high-arcing bombs from well beyond the three-point line. He had 23 in the quarter, and nothing Jordan did seemed to affect his ability to either step back, fire and swish or at least get to the line. The only repellant turned out to be Arenas.
The Wizards clinched fifth and travel to Cleveland over the weekend, where they would match up with a Cavaliers team they could beat over seven games.
But the reason they have a shot is Arenas, who lowered his head and then his shoulder and refused to be denied over the game's final 10 minutes. He scored 16 of his 43 in the final period, hitting 9 of 10 from the line. They were a quiet 43 — if there is such a thing. But that was good. It meant Arenas was in control of his game. There were moments when you could see him wanting to take three-pointers and then, in a split second, realizing that he could not risk a playoff seeding on his jumper not falling. His desire would get the Wizards there instead.
Redd, baffled by a switching defense, made one of his final four attempts in the fourth quarter and six of his eight points in the quarter came from the line.
By the time he left the court, with the spectators standing and applauding, Redd knew that Arenas took his team's fifth seed.
Between Bryant, Allen Iverson, James and Arenas this season, 40 is becoming the new 30 in the NBA. Arenas has scored 30 or more 42 times and 40 or more 11 times. For all those points, however, it says here he wasn't even ensured of an all-NBA berth until the waning minutes last night.
As an eighth seed, which the Wizards could have been had they lost, there were simply too many great, young guards in his path to justify naming Arenas. Nash and Bryant probably make the first team, Billups and Wade have to be considered for the second team and that leaves Parker, Iverson, Carter and Arenas to fight it out for third-team votes.
Arenas is undeniably one of the top 15 players in the game, and the way in which decent big men are added to balance out starting fives never seems right or fair. But at this juncture -- securing a No. 5, 6 or 7 seed -- Arenas has to displace Iverson on that third team.
In less than a week, the man showed so much maturity and confidence. He never let T.J. Ford, the unbelievably quick Bucks guard, get in his dome. Ford swiped the ball from him in the final seconds in a loss at Milwaukee last week, and all Arenas did was use and abuse him on the blocks last night, posting up the diminutive guard and shooting over him.
At one juncture, Arenas hit this Larryesque tough-angle, fallaway jumper along the left baseline that was just awesome to see on a replay.
Everything Redd could do, Arenas could do better. It's why the Wizards won, why, if they beat a watered-down Detroit tonight, they have a legitimate shot to advance to the second round for the second straight season. It's why the Bucks are still a year away, and Gilbert Arenas is approaching his prime.