Washington will try to overcome the loss of its All-Star guard and clinch a playoff berth for a third consecutive season on Friday when the Wizards host the sputtering Cleveland Cavaliers.
Arenas underwent surgery on Thursday for a lateral meniscus tear in his left knee that will sideline him for two to three months. He was injured late in the first quarter of Wednesday’s 108-100 loss to Charlotte when Gerald Wallace inadvertently crashed into him after an off-balance reverse layup.
The team’s top scorer at 28.4 points per game, Arenas fell to the floor and likely took the Wizards’ championship hopes with him. He could return if Washington (39-35) can advance to the NBA finals without him and fellow All-Star Caron Butler, who broke his hand in a loss to Milwaukee on Sunday.
“It’s pretty much down,” Wizards guard DeShawn Stevenson said of the club’s mood. “But at the same time, we are a playoff team. We have to worry about the playoffs and winning games.”
Actually, the Wizards need a win on Friday, coupled with an Indiana Pacers loss to the Bobcats, to officially secure a spot in the postseason. Washington is 1 1/2 games back of Southeast Division-leading Miami with eight games to play.
At one point during the season, Washington held the best record in the East and had finals aspirations, but the injuries to Arenas and Butler - Washington’s second-leading scorer with 19.1 points - has tempered those hopes. The Wizards are 2-9 without Butler, and Arenas will miss his first game since March 28, 2006.
“It’s very difficult, to lead a conference and be the best team, and then all of a sudden injuries kind of plague the team,” captain Antawn Jamison said. “But it’s basketball. It’s not the first time this has ever happened.
“It’s just difficult for us because we were on the brink of doing something special as far as contending for the best record and really making some noise. Not to say that is too far-fetched now, but the identity of the team is totally different.”
The Wizards are expected to use Antonio Daniels as a true point guard, while Jamison, Stevenson, Etan Thomas, Jarvis Hayes, Darius Songaila and others will have to find ways to compensate offensively for the losses of Arenas and Butler.
Cleveland (45-31) has already clinched its playoff spot and hopes to take advantage of the injury-plagued Wizards to regain sole possession of second place in the Central Division and Eastern Conference.
The Cavaliers have gone 4-6 since winning eight in a row, and LeBron James’ 35 points were not enough Wednesday in a 94-90 overtime defeat to Miami. The loss dropped the Cavs into third in the Central Division and fifth in the East.
“It’s not over,” Cavaliers forward Drew Gooden said. “We can’t look back and deal with woulda, shoulda and coulda. We never gave up, but the most disappointing thing is we had a chance to win it in overtime and we didn’t.”
The team’s struggles have dropped it into a tie with Chicago, 3 1/2 games back of division and conference-leading Detroit. However, the Bulls hold the tiebreaker over the Cavaliers - a better division record - with six games to play.
The Cavs and Wizards have split the two season meetings, with Arenas scoring 45 points in a 111-99 victory Nov. 18.