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Gilbert Arenas, NBA's next superstar?

Heroics vs. Bulls perhaps just beginning of great things for Wizard
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Before Game 5, Gilbert Arenas was understood to be one of the most improvisational scorers in pro basketball, a fledgling all-star who could get his shot at any time, from anywhere.

After Wednesday's contest, he joined the club -- the buzzer-beater brethren.

"The regular season is for stars," Charles Barkley once said, "the postseason is for superstars."

Playing well in the first 82 games begets contract extensions, all-NBA selections and respect from your peers. Rising and firing in a 14-footer to win a franchise's first road playoff game in 19 years -- siphoning hope out of 23,000 people who would have died happy if you had just missed -- changes how other players perceive you and how you perceive yourself.

"Truthfully, I don't know what it will do for me," Arenas said last night in a telephone interview. He had just left MCI Center, where he, Antawn Jamison and the suspended Kwame Brown went through an informal workout. "If we get out of the first round or we go far, that's the shot that did it. If we don't go far, it's a big shot but it doesn't mean as much."

At the least, Arenas moved closer to the barrier with that shot over Kirk Hinrich and Tyson Chandler, the invisible line between very good and transcendent. Everyone from Mike Bibby to Kobe Bryant crossed that line at some point in the postseason, hitting a game-winning jump shot that often means more than two or three points.

In Arenas's case, it could mean everything.

Aside from the Clippers, no other NBA team has gone without a genuine superstar longer than Washington. There have been perennial all-stars in training (Chris Webber and Ben Wallace) and there has been novelty (the Bruise Brothers of Jeff Ruland and Rick Mahorn). There have been other players, such as Jeff Malone, players who have calmly made big shots at the end of big games. Yet Arenas may be the first to evolve into the closest thing Abe Pollin has had to a superstar since Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes and Earl Monroe. Unseld retired as a rock of a player, one of the greatest of his era. Monroe captivated Pollin's fan base during its early years, spinning and twisting in the lane until the ball fell through the net, the way Arenas's ball fell through in Game 5.

"I've only seen it on TV," Arenas said when asked if he had ever been a part of such theater. "Only when Michael Jordan did it."

The Wizards can close out their first playoff series in 23 years tonight because their 23-year-old point guard has been growing by the possession in less than two weeks.

Game 1, Arenas embodied his shell-shocked teammates, shooting 3 for 19 in his first playoff game.

Game 2, he was the typical young player who needed to score to prove himself. Arenas finished with 39 points but had just four assists in another Wizards' loss.

By Game 3, Arenas began to realize that moving the ball did not allow Chicago's defenders to key on him and Hughes. Since Game 4, there has not been a more cocksure point guard in the playoffs.

Vince Carter sent a game into overtime against Miami, but no one has hit a more series-altering shot than Arenas's this postseason.

Jordan's first series-clinching jump shot is remembered more than most. His hanging, double-clutch jumper over Craig Ehlo in Game 5 of the 1989 first-round series against Cleveland ended years of playoff frustration for the Bulls. It elevated Jordan to something more than just the man who torched the Celtics for a playoff-record 63 points in a losing cause.

Bryant's moment came five years ago. He scored eight of 28 points in overtime of Game 4 of the 2000 NBA Finals. He was just 21 when Shaquille O'Neal fouled out and Indiana seemed ensured of knotting the series at 2-all. But Bryant rebounded a missed shot and, somehow, in one motion, scored on a reverse layup with 5.9 seconds left to almost ensure the Lakers the title.

"You know with that game last night, the way you pulled it out, you crossed the threshold," an admirer told Bryant in the hallway of the arena. "You know that, right?"

"I hope you're right," Bryant said.

He was right. Bryant stepped into another realm with that shot, his confidence at 21 years old growing exponentially, until he briefly became the best all-around player in the game.

Same went for Bibby against the Lakers in Game 5 of the 2002 Western Conference finals. One long jump shot, and Bibby became known as a money postseason player, someone to have the ball in his hands at the end of the game.

John Stockton was always viewed as one of the game's elite point guards after his first few seasons. But it was not until he won the West in 1997, hitting a three-pointer with Barkley running at him in Game 6 of the 1997 Western Conference finals against Houston, that Stockton became one of the great clutch players of his generation.

Reggie Miller annually hushed Madison Square Garden the way Arenas silenced United Center.

"I was just trying to get one step in front of [Hinrich] so I could jump over him," Arenas said. "I remember every shot Jordan hit, the ones that put daggers in so many people's hearts. I wanted to be that kind of player. I always had the [guts]. I'm not one of those people who is going to run away from the ball. I want it, I'm not scared."

Who knows whether the shot becomes impetus for something grander or it merely won an important game? But the Wizards are 48 minutes from winning their first postseason series since 1982. They are 48 minutes from a trip to Miami absolutely no one outside of their locker room believed they were capable of making in October. They are playing their first Game 6 since 1979, when the franchise had a genuine superstar.

If that history does not give Arenas more confidence after the shot, nothing will.