As much as we may hate to admit it, last night's emotional victory does little to change the direction of the team. A seven point win at home will not take anyone off the trading block. Many of the players you saw come up big tonight will not be suiting up for the Wizards at this time next year. Still, a lot of these players can still do a lot to ensure that when they do leave, that they leave on a high note.
Enter Antawn Jamison. No one called for him to make a speech before the crowd last night. No one said he had to apologize for actions he was not responsible for creating. No one blamed him for the drama that Wizards fans have had to deal with for the last week. He could have chosen to do the same things he's done for the rest of the games this season, but he didn't.
He took responsibility for things he wasn't responsible for, but happened under his watch, because that's what leaders do. He reassured fans that things would be alright at a time when things looked worse than they ever had been, like any good leader would. And when it was time to put his money where his mouth was, he led by example. Regardless of where he ends up (hopefully not in Cleveland), Jamison is doing what he can to make his final days in Washington worth remembering. At a time where we have begun to seriously question the legacies of many attached to this franchise, Antawn Jamison is doing what he can to leave on a high note.
The captain set the tone. Before the national anthem Antawn Jamison grabbed a microphone at center court and silence came over the sell-out crowd of 20,173 at Verizon Center. Jamison provided the certain voice to an uncertain situation. Jamison did not mince words. He was clear in stating that the Wizards had been through a trying and embarrassing time because of the indefinite suspension of Gilbert Arenas. Jamison also did not shy away from the now infamous photograph of players smiling as Arenas wagged his fingers liked guns before Tuesday’s game in Philadelphia. "This is a serious situation," Jamison told the crowd with his voice breaking at times. "It’s something that we take to heart. We never meant to make light of the situation and we are going to do everything in our power, as long as I am your captain and as long as those guys are my teammates, to make this one of the most respectable organizations in the league."
CSN's Chris Miller asked Jamison about the crowd, and the captain seemed genuinely emotional.
"You know, it's great," he said. "They're gonna be the reason. You know, they've always been the reason. My fondest memories are of a playoff atmosphere here. These people love the game of basketball, they know about the game of basketball, and we owe it to them, man, to come out here and play hard and give them something to cheer about, bring their families and their kids. And that's what we're gonna get back to. I know it's been difficult the last week or so, but we're gonna get back to having fun and making this one of the toughest places to come in and play at."
"They don't make 'em like Antawn Jamison any more," Miller said a few minutes later.
The other players did not know beforehand that Jamison would speak. "It doesn't surprise me,'' said guard DeShawn Stevenson. "Antawn always carries himself like a veteran, very respectful, and it just shows a part of his character. He's our leader.'' The other notable departure from the usual pre-game routine was the video that plays during introductions -- Arenas was no longer in it. Nor was his image on the video message board that runs around the rim of the concourse, where he once was one of the players flashed on it along with the Wizards' marketing slogan, "Character, Commitment, Connection.'' That same slogan had also adorned the banner of Arenas that had been taken down from outside the arena Thursday.
Washington certainly was focused down the stretch against the Magic, erasing a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit and taking the lead for good, 86-85, with 5 minutes 51 seconds to play on Haywood's putback. The Wizards led by eight with 3:18 to play on two free throws by Butler and then all but sealed the victory with two more Butler foul shots for a 100-91 lead with 50 seconds to go.
Caron Butler (23 points, 7 rebounds) finished it off with two free throws following an emotional defensive rebound and foul that brought the crowd to its feet. "This is a city that loves the game of basketball, that knows the game of basketball," said Jamison afterward. "If you just play hard and you play with a certain amount of passion, they are going to cheer for you. They recognize hard work and that’s what we did tonight. We played with a lot of passion and a lot of aggressiveness. It felt good to have the fans have our backs. That made a difference for us."
"He had a great game," Saunders said of Haywood. "I was on him a couple times because I wanted him to try to wrap up down there. [Howard] got a couple three-point plays. I was screaming at [Haywood]. He was screaming back at me, but that's good to keep the fire going. "We didn't give him a lot of help down there. We said, 'Hey, we're going to let you play him one-on-one down there,' and we tried to stay at home as much as we could on their three-point shooters." The strategy worked as Washington limited Orland to 7 of 27 from three-point range, including 4 of 20 in the second half.
Haywood and Blatche combined to grab 9 offensive rebounds for Washington tonight, which explains the Wizards' high level of efficiency despite their poor shooting. For the 4th time in 5 games, Orlando struggled to keep its opponent off its own backboard. That responsibility falls to Howard, Lewis, backup center Marcin Gortat, and whichever backup power forward Van Gundy elects to play.
The Magic didn’t get much offense out of anyone besides Dwight Howard. Howard did not shoot free throws well, going just 5-of-12 from the stripe, but he was a very efficient 9-of-13 from the field and led the Magic with 23 points. He also grabbed 11 rebounds, but Brendan Haywood scored 18 points on a perfect 6-of-6 shooting from the field and 6-of-6 shooting from the free throw line. Haywood also outrebounded Howard, the league’s leading rebounder, by grabbing 15 boards. It appeared that Haywood outplayed Howard but after the game, Van Gundy said he "thought Dwight handled him." Overall, Van Gundy sounded happy with Howard’s performance but said that the Magic need to get more consistency out of their key players.
Stepping up in a big way on the night was Randy Foye. Foye, a swing guard in the mold of a poor mans Gilbert Arenas, filled in well on the night scoring 20 points and dishing six assists. Most importantly for Foye, he committed 0 turnovers on the night, making him very efficient in his first action as the starting point guard. Foye also had two blocked shots, was eight of eight from the line, and led the Wizards with a +22 +/- rating.
Mike Miller must've hit the floor at least a half-dozen times, mostly due to rust. But he still did what he does, making the effort plays and extra passes that get the Wizards going, and they responded. "As I've said, I’ll be more effective on this team just being out there moving the ball," said Miller. "There’s going to be nights like I’ve done this year where I have to score, and believe me, I hear the fans telling me to shoot more, whatever. But you know what, passing the ball, getting the ball poppin' is something that gets the team going. It’s like a domino effect. Once it gets poppin’, you saw we got it going early, and now everyone wants to do it. That’s fun. That’s fun basketball. That’s how you’re supposed to play, and it’s fun to win."
When I asked Miller if he was healthy after the game, he smiled, put his hand on my shoulder and said, "I’m getting there, man. I’m getting there." Miller was also sporting a fresh new buzz cut, shunning the long flowing hairdo he had been wearing since the start of the season. When asked what prompted the change, Miller said, "Its a new start. I’ve been through a lot of tough things that last couple of years and its time to start over."
Miller, in his return to the starting line-up, scored 6 points, dished 6 assists, and secured 6 rebounds. Not exactly Arenas numbers, plus there's an eerie repetition of "six" going on, but those Friday the 8th "glue guy" stats speak volumes about the versatility Miller provides Washington at the shooting guard/small forward rotation.
Nevertheless, if any act ever spelled "divorce'' between a team and a player, it was of the banner disappearing -- and technically, that player was still part of the team. The only comparable action by a team with one of its players in recent years was taken by the San Francisco Giants early in the 2008 season, when wall banners and decorations commemorating historic moments in Barry Bonds' career were removed from AT&T Park. But that was after Bonds had been allowed to leave at the end of his contract at the end of the previous season -- and after he had been indicted in the offseason on federal perjury charges related to the BALCO investigation. Several players had not known that the Arenas banner had been taken down until they were told by reporters after the game, and seemed bothered by the news. "It's just sad, because he worked so hard to get where he's at,'' said DeShawn Stevenson, who described Arenas as "like a brother.'' "Second-round (pick), nobody knew who he was, and to make his name, it's sad that he has to go through this.''
There are people that are outraged without looking at who Arenas was. There are people that tend to try and defend him, if not openly, then quietly behind the "that’s who Gil is" argument. There are some like Woj who seek to blame that identity for what’s occurred, and the league for not shutting it down sooner. My question: Do we really know who he is? No. Absolutely not. We don’t know anything about Gilbert Arenas. We know what he’s given us, and the word of people who are financially tied to his success have given commentary on that being who he is. But I’ve lost my ability to trust Gilbert Arenas. What he did wasn’t necessarily duplicitous, but that doesn’t change the fact that it removed trust. Gilbert Arenas put people in harm’s way. If you don’t believe that, then you don’t understand the fully destructive capabilities of a Desert Eagle. And by putting those people in harm’s way, he removed my ability to trust anything I know about him other than he takes too many jumpshots early in the possession. I believe in talk, and intent, and discussion. But there are times when a person’s actions have to take precedence over his words.