WASHINGTON -- Washington Wizards president Susan O'Malley noticed the difference immediately.
Most remained in their seats with the Wizards holding a double-digit lead, leading O'Malley to wear a look of pleasant surprise. It was an expression that betrayed years of watching fans slip out early to beat the rush.
But not this year. Not when the Wizards boast an NBA Eastern Conference-best home record of 17-3 heading into tonight's game against the equally high-scoring Phoenix Suns. Not when they have made a habit of winning the sort of buzzer beaters they routinely used to lose.
"Everybody stays now to see what happens," says O'Malley, who has been with the club for 21 years and saw the Wizards go eight seasons in one stretch without making the playoffs.
While the Wizards have made the postseason the past two years, O'Malley says the club seems to be generating extra buzz this year. "We've moved the circle out from the avid fan to others," she says.
One reason is the ascent of budding superstar Gilbert Arenas, who has three 50-point-plus games this season and is the club's biggest draw since Michael Jordan.
A fading Jordan came to the Wizards to end his career, but Arenas, 25, is still improving. "We felt like we rented Michael," O'Malley said. "The people feel like they own Gilbert."
Although Washington might always be a Redskins town, increasing numbers of fans have been spotted wearing Arenas jerseys and other Wizards apparel. Fans at games have taken to raising homemade "MVP" signs when Arenas hits big shots.
"I work at an auto shop and you come in now and people are talking about the Wizards and about basketball," said Marty Kirk, 49, of Fairfax, Va., who sported an Arenas "0" jersey at the New York game.
With the home schedule halfway done, the club's 18,016 average attendance is nearly 5 percent higher than last year's 17,197.
"I think the city is very excited about this team," said Ernie Grunfeld, the team's president of basketball operations. "We have an exciting brand of basketball. It's fun to watch, it's up and down."
The fans who remained at the Knicks game were rewarded - sort of. First, they saw the Wizards blow an 11-point lead. Then they watched Caron Butler dunk in the game-winner with 2.2 seconds left.
The outcome neatly summed up Washington's season. The Wizards, who have won four in a row, have a tendency to give up baskets in bunches, ranking behind only the Golden State Warriors in points allowed at 105.9.
"We still have a little bit of a ways to go defensively," center Brendan Haywood said. "We have to have the confidence to know that when you get beat, somebody else is going to be there to cover for you. It just takes time."
But the Wizards can usually score when they need to. Before Butler's game-winner, Arenas had hit game-winning three-pointers this month against the Milwaukee Bucks and Utah Jazz, injecting each shot with memorable swagger - "the swag," he calls it.
"We're all smarter with Gilbert," O'Malley said. "We're smarter marketers. We're smarter everything."
At 107.5 points scored per game, Washington ranks second only to Phoenix's 111.5. The Wizards beat the Suns, 144-139, in overtime in the team's last meeting in December, ending Phoenix's 15-game winning streak. Arenas scored 54 points, his second-highest total of the season.
"Gilbert always says we are the Phoenix Suns of the East," Butler said. "It's the Phoenix Suns of the East [tonight] versus. the Suns of the West."
Phoenix went to the Western Conference finals last season despite ranking 28th in points allowed. NBA observers say the Suns have tried to improve their defense.
"It all changes in the playoffs," said Walt Frazier, the Hall of Fame guard who is now a commentator for Knicks television broadcasts. "The last five minutes is all half-court game and you've got to play defense. No one has really won it all without defense except the 'showtime' Lakers and they could clamp down on you when they had to. Phoenix is trying to improve."
So, too, are the Wizards.
After the 99-98 win over the Knicks, Washington players were proud to have held a team in double digits. "We held them under 100," guard Jarvis Hayes said. "And we won."
It's a basketball truism that teams scoring lots of points usually give up a lot, too. Grunfeld said he can accept that. But he says there is room for defensive improvement, and that the club has been making strides.
"Obviously we've shown we can beat the best - we've beaten the division leaders. We've made some stops in crunch time this year," Grunfeld said. "We want to get better defensively without changing our style of play."