Departing from his usual happy-go-lucky routine, Arenas donned his headphones 90 minutes before tipoff and had the edgy nervousness of a kid waiting in a lobby for a job interview. That's no way to approach a game against the Los Angeles Lakers, especially when Bryant is seeking to settle a score.
Round 2 went to Bryant on Saturday night as two of the NBA's most riveting playmakers tried to outdo each other, point for point, flashy move for flashy move. The Los Angeles star scored 39 points in the Lakers' 118-102 victory over Arenas and the Washington Wizards.
"I've got to stop doing that serious thing before the game," Arenas said. "I've got to be my goofy self. I was too serious, and I think that's why I struggled early."
Arenas dropped a franchise-record 60 points in a 147-141 overtime win at Los Angeles on Dec. 17, but he set the tone Saturday with an airball on the game's first possession. He went 9-for-29 from the field and finished with 37 points -- mainly because he was 16-for-17 from the free throw line.
"It's not working," Arenas said. "No smiling, no talking, just listening to music. I'm usually having fun. I'm out here telling jokes, listening to jokes, running around, punching on people, the usual. It was one of those times I was trying to focus in, but it backfired. Lesson learned."
Meanwhile, Bryant made 14 of 26 shots, went 9-of-10 from the free throw line and had six rebounds and six assists in 44 minutes for the Lakers, who are 2-2 halfway through an eight-game road trip. His highlights included a 360-degree dunk, but he mostly helped his team with a steady performance that outshone the erratic Arenas.
At the final whistle, Bryant pounded his chest twice and raised the "No. 1" sign to the crowd, but he downplayed the 1-on-1 duel.
"At this point in my career, it's not something that really excites me," Bryant said. "What's exciting is coming into this building after we dropped a game last night, and coming here and playing well."
The game was one of the most eagerly awaited regular season matchups in Washington in years. After Arenas' 60-point effort, Bryant stoked some ire by saying Arenas' shots were "terrible" and "awful" and said that Arenas "doesn't seem to have much of a conscience."
Arenas initially took exception, although both have since made it clear there's no bad blood between them. Still, both were pumped for the rematch, with Arenas declaring he was in "attack mode" -- especially with teammate Antawn Jamison out for three to six weeks with a sprained knee.
"We got caught up in the rematch," said Jarvis Hayes, who scored five points starting in Jamison's spot. "We were feeling this game since last week. I think we'll be fine now that we got this game out of our system."
The Bryant-Arenas battle got going midway through the first quarter when Bryant grabbed a loose ball in front of Arenas and rammed in a dunk. Arenas responded at the other end with a move off the dribble that left Bryant flat-footed and the crowd gasping in admiration.
Arenas put up his second 3-point airball of the game near the end of the half, and the Lakers went to the locker room with a 54-50 lead.
"I talked a little at halftime not to make this a personal duel," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "But it's unavoidable sometimes -- on a night like tonight."
With Arenas and Butler struggling, the Lakers gradually built the first double-digit lead of the game late in the third quarter. Bryant came out for the first time near the end of the period, and Arenas soon followed for his first rest of the game.
Both players returned with 9:10 to play and the Lakers leading by 12. Arenas soon made a 3-pointer while drawing a foul from Bryant -- Bryant could only say "Wow!" as Arenas prepared to complete the four-point play -but that the last hurrah for the Arenas and the Wizards, who couldn't get the lead back within single digits.
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