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May 6, 2005

One shot has Wizards feeling Bullish again

by Michael Bushnell, Page Editor
When Gilbert Arenas left the court last night, he ensured that his name would be etched into NBA Playoff lore for a good time to come. His 14-foot jumper won the game for the Washington Wizards, and more importantly, erased all memory of the team's 22-ppint second half collapse, as well as the recent dismissal of Kwame Brown from the team. Funny how a simple two point jump shot can alter the direction of a franchise.

Arenas' jumper to beat the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday, 112-110, has to have been the most euphoric and significant moment in Washington pro sports history since 1998, when Capitals winger Joe Juneau fired a slap shot past Buffalo goalie Dominik Hasek to win the Caps their first berth in the Stanley Cup Finals.

It was the first playoff buzzer-beater for the Wiz since 1986, when Wes Unseld hit a miracle three-pointer at Philadelphia, capping an 18-0 run in the Eastern Quarterfinals. Actually, that was the last time the team won on the road in the playoffs, if you can believe it.

The Wizards have a 3-2 series lead headed back to Washington for a potential series-clinching game on Friday night. (8 p.m./Comcast Sports Net)

Since the Wizards have proven that they are incapable of holding a lead, no matter how large it is, hitting a game winning shot is just as demoralizing shot to the opponent as a 30-point blowout. When TNT analyst/awful suit model Craig Sager talked to Bulls guards Ben Gordon and Kirk Hinrich after the game, they looked like they'd gladly switch places with anybody on the Clippers. Hey, it's hard to be crushed when you haven't played in three weeks.

For me, the shot was the best way the game could have ended. Even though the Wiz led 106-96 with 55 seconds left, winning by ten would not have been nearly as exhilarating as the way the game ended on Wednesday. When the Wiz won their first playoff game in my entire life on Saturday, I wasn't half as excited as I was last night. Trying desperately to go fall asleep, I stayed up saying to myself, "I can't believe he hit that shot. I can't [flipping] believe he hit that."

Good things aren't supposed to happen to the Wizards. It's like dating an obese, masculine, angry girl with a hygiene problem for years, and then one day she decides to change her ways, diet, get a hair cut and some deodorant. Now she's a supermodel and the envy of other women that used to frown on her. Trust me; I know these things.

But the Wizards are that woman, and General Manager Ernie Grunfeld was the Speed Stick, Super Cuts, Prozac and Weight Watchers all in one. When he arrived and replaced Michael Jordan, he signaled a change in this franchise. Finally, someone who knew something about how to run a basketball team was in charge.

He signed Gilbert Arenas and Larry Hughes for chump change. And he somehow dumped the deadweight contracts of Jerry Stackhouse and Christian Laettner on Dallas in exchange for Jamison. Sure, Stack has been solid in the postseason for the Mavs and Laettner hasn't gotten kicked off the Miami Heat yet, but neither had the impact Jamison had for the Wiz.

When Arenas hit that shot, it finished a long transition. When Kwame Brown, the apple of Air Jordan's eye on NBA Draft Night 2001, was suspended for faking an illness right before Game Four, it ended his four years of tumult in D.C.

And while Brown watched from home in Virginia, Arenas made his first major mark on the national scene. His shot was the most played today, and is so far the best clip of the playoffs. People from Arlington, Tex. to Zelko, Wyoming know who he is now. He put himself and the Wizards on the national map with that shot.

In the past, teams that were victimized by buzzer-beating threes haven't been successful in the series after that. Michael Jordan, who made the last Playoff buzzer-beater at the United Center before Arenas' Wednesday, hit one on Utah's Bryon Russell to win Game One in the 1997 NBA Finals. The shot set the tone for the series, which Chicago won in five games.

Since I can't resist the role of Devil's advocate, Arenas' jumper did could be counterproductive in the sole sense that it might not make the Wizards focus on their inability to close games. They had a 28-point lead in Game Four that was whittled down to six, and a 22-point lead that was completely erased Wednesday night. The Wizards need to either get a lead larger than 22 before they collapse, or stay focused.

Because if Arenas doesn't make that jumper, the Bulls, in their gym, with the momentum and with 23,000 fans making deafening noise, probably win that game going away in Overtime. They also would have had all the momentum headed into Game Six.

But Arenas saved the Wizards again from themselves. Coach Eddie Jordan has to enforce and engrain in their heads that they got lazy and complacent at the end of the game. Two games in a row they've let the Bulls put a major scare into them thanks to a long string of consecutive three-pointers. The Wiz let benchwarmer Jannero Pargo score 10 points in the last three minutes of Game Five.

That all said, Washington should have every reason to expect to win Game Six tonight. I will be one of the 20,173 raucous fans that will be supporting the likely still-pumped Wizards. If they get on Chicago early like they have in every other game this series, the Bulls may not have the same drive or energy to rally like they have had in earlier games.

You can throw in that Chicago hasn't won at MCI Center since 2001, but I don't buy that. What I will buy in bulk is that the Wizards have the three best players in the series. Not one, not two, but the three best. The Big Three in D.C. all trump anyone that the Baby Bulls can throw out on the court. Beyond trends and whatever, the best team wins a seven-game series.

And at this point, it looks like the Wizards are on their way. All thanks to one 14-foot jumper that will live in D.C. basketball lore forever.

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  • Dumb Democrats= (View Email) on May 7, 2005 at 12:50 PM
    This article is interesting but a little on the rambling side.
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