WASHINGTON (AP)—In Game 5, he made the game-winning shot. In Game 6, he made the game-altering block.
While there are plenty of reasons why the Washington Wizards are headed to the second round of the playoffs for the first time in 23 years, let there be no mistake: Gilbert Arenas is the man who led them there.
Arenas shot just 6-of-24 Friday night but raced downcourt and blocked Kirk Hinrich’s fast-break layup with 2:41 to play, igniting a game-ending 7-0 run in the Wizards’ series-clinching 94-91 victory over the Chicago Bulls.
“That was a big play, a huge play,” Washington coach Eddie Jordan said. “Gilbert didn’t shoot the ball well, but there are players who have a will and a determination to win, who will do anything they have to do to help their team win.”
Confetti flooded the MCI floor and fireworks exploded at the final buzzer as the Wizards won the series 4-2, advancing for the first time since the Bullets’ 2-0 sweep of New Jersey in 1982, back when the first round was best-of-three.
“I was just born, huh?” said the 23-year-old Arenas. “It’s great feeling for us. We believed we can go far, and we’re showing it. It’s been an uphill battle with injuries and players missing, but we stayed together and kept believing.”
This was the ninth time in NBA history that a team recovered from an 0-2 deficit to advance, but the Wizards aren’t getting much of a break to enjoy their success. They open at top-seeded Miami on Sunday in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
“For a while, we were known as losers in this league,” center Brendan Haywood said. “I think our coaching staff and general manager brought the right players in here where we’ve turned that tag around.”
The Bulls were leading by four when Hinrich stole the ball from Hughes and went downcourt for the layup. Arenas came from behind and make the block, reversing the tide of the game.
“I could have easily just fouled him, but I thought I could go for the block and I did,” Arenas said. “It stopped them from going up six. It was a great turnaround.”
Hughes then made a layup to cut the lead to two, and Jamison poked the ball away from Hinrich and hit a jumper at the other end to tie the game at 91 with 2:08 to play.
Then came a bizarre finish. With 36 seconds remaining, the Bulls called timeout to set up a play. But Chris Duhon turned his back just as Hinrich threw the inbounds pass, and the ball bounced off Duhon’s back and was scooped up by Jared Jeffries, who raced downcourt for a dunk with 33 seconds remaining.
“I wasn’t even expecting the pass. I should have been looking at the ball,” Duhon said. “I thought I was doing one thing, and Kirk thought I was doing another thing.”
The Bulls had two more possessions, but Jannero Pargo missed badly with a jumper, and, after Washington’s Juan Dixon made one of two free throws, Andres Nocioni missed a 3-pointer. Tyson Chandler rebounded but shot an ill-advised 2-point attempt with his team needing a 3 to tie.
Arenas rebounded and tossed the ball into the crowd, the final 2 seconds ticking off the clock as the ball was airborne.
“We defended out butts off out there the last minute and a half,” Arenas said. “No one scored. People say we can’t play defense, but we did it just then.”
Indeed, the Bulls led for nearly the entire second half but failed to score in the final 2:53.
“I don’t want to say ‘fell apart,’ but we dismantled at the end,” Hinrich said.
Nocioni and Hinrich scored 22 points apiece for the Bulls, who make a remarkable comeback from an 0-9 regular season start to make the playoffs for the first time in seven years. They kept the game tight from the tipoff despite given little chance after a heartbreaking loss at home on Wednesday in Game 5 when they overcame a 22-point deficit but lost on Arenas’ game-winner at the buzzer. Chicago hasn’t won in Washington since 2001, a losing streak that has now reached 11 games.
Already having to make do without leading scorer Eddy Curry and forward Luol Deng for the playoffs, the Bulls started Ben Gordon because of Duhon’s sore back. Duhon played 21 minutes and scored five points, but he was so stiff he had to lie on the floor when he wasn’t in the game and had trouble guarding Arenas. Gordon was hardly the solution: He played 16 minutes without scoring and had five turnovers.
Neither team led by more than 10 in a tense game with several scoring droughts. Neither team scored in the final 3:55 of the third quarter, with the Wizards’ missed-shot streak hitting 13 before Jamison made a 3-pointer early in the fourth. Arenas missed eight straight shots before his 3-pointer with 7:44 to play cut Chicago’s lead to 80-78.
A little later, the celebration began.
“We’ve got to ride the wave,” Arenas said, “as long as we can.”
Incredible as it may seem, Wizards coach Jordan was drinking a cup of water when Arenas’ hit the game-winning shot at the buzzer in Game 5. “I was sitting down,” Jordan said. “I said, ‘Well, I’ve called the play, it’s on them.’ I’m drinking a sip of water, and the thing went in—and the water went up. I baptized myself.” … Win or lose, the Wizards knew they would have to catch a flight for a Sunday game: either Game 7 at Chicago or Game 1 at Miami. “I’ve got my suntan lotion on one side of my bag, and my parka coat on the other side of the bag,” Jordan said. “So I’m going with that bag one way or the other.”