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Arenas silent, but he's heard Add to ...

His white ear buds in place, Gilbert Arenas was trying to find some quiet time in the visitors dressing room at the Air Canada Centre here yesterday.

Actually, he was insisting on it.

"I'm not talking any more," he answered when asked about doing an interview.

"Ever?"

"Ever," he said, albeit politely.

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For the Washington Wizards, it marks the end of an era and hopefully the start of a new one, with ramifications for Eastern Conference hopefuls like the Toronto Raptors.

The Wizards, the dregs of the NBA with just 19 wins last season, are on their way to respectability and perhaps more, bolstered by the return to health of Arenas, their suddenly monk-like franchise player.

Determined to let his play do the talking, Arenas counted 14 points and seven assists in his 24 minutes of court time in exhibition play yesterday as he continued working his way back to health after missing most of two seasons with knee problems.

The Raptors have made their share of off-season moves to shake off their 33-win season with designs on a top-five playoff seed, but the improvement of a team like the Wizards could make it all moot.

Toronto looked sharp at times in front of 11,936 at the ACC, hanging on to win 100-96 and even their preseason record at 2-2. They shot just 38.8 per cent but got their best showing yet from rookie DeMar DeRozan, who scored 19 points in 36 minutes, earning his way to the free throw line 10 times and converting nine. Amir Johnson was also impressive off the bench as he sparked the Raptors with seven points, 12 rebounds and three blocked shots.

"I really wanted to get to the line," said DeRozan, who brought the ACC fans to their feet with two fourth-quarter dunks. "The first two games I really wasn't aggressive, so I wanted to be more aggressive."

Arenas showed his playmaking in the first quarter when he easily split the defence on the perimeter and set to attack Andrea Bargnani before pitching out to Antawn Jamison for a three-point basket. But he was most like his old self when he scored 12 points in the third quarter, leading Washington to a 33-25 surge before he shut it down for the day.

Finding the balance between his scoring and playmaking instincts is something Flip Saunders, the Wizards new coach, is looking for as he tries to steer Washington into the top four of the Eastern Conference, joining the Boston Celtics, Orlando Magic and Cleveland Cavaliers.

"He's been extremely receptive, really attentive," Saunders said. "When we have film he's the first guy to pull up a chair and watch. To this point he's been as receptive to coaching as any body I've had."

Until two years ago, Arenas was the NBA player who wouldn't shut up, delivering provocative interviews - he had his house converted to a hyperbaric chamber, don't you know - bestowing upon himself cool nicknames, morphing from Agent Zero to Hibachi to Black President and becoming a popular athlete blogger.

Now? No blogs, no nicknames and no interviews. Nothing but earphones.

His teammates couldn't be happier, as they interpret his vow of silence as a renewed commitment to his on-court career, one interrupted by three surgeries on his left knee, limiting him to 15 games during the past two seasons. "It's good. He's a leader, he's the franchise player. When he's serious it's good for everyone," Wizards teammate DeShawn Stevenson said. "I'm just glad to see him out there."

Added Caron Butler: "Whatever works for him. Whatever works for him. As long as we get wins."

A focused and healthy Arenas is something the Raptors need to be concerned about. Two seasons ago he averaged 28.4 points a game, the year before that it was 29.3 as Washington extended their playoff run to four consecutive seasons.

Arenas wasn't the only Wizard starter to be plagued by injuries recently. Starting centre Brendan Haywood missed 76 games last year and Stevenson missed 50.

All are back and bolstered by the off-season additions of marksmen Mike Miller and Randy Foye from the Minnesota Timberwolves and veteran big man Fabricio Oberto, whose sandpaper helped the San Antonio Spurs to a championship in 2006-07.

Doubling their win total would be an impressive feat but the Wizards have their minds on tripling it.

"We're looking forward to the challenge of proving a lot doubters wrong and prove to ourselves we can be an elite team in this league," said Butler, who along with Jamison and Arenas give Washington three potential 20-point-a-game scorers. "We want to make some noise in the playoffs and we're trying to win a championship. That's our goal, that's what's in front of us and that's what we're striving for."

Arenas would say the same thing doubtlessly, but he's not talking.

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