Golden Child Outshines The Wizards

Gilbert Arenas of the Wizards is none too pleased with his team's performance in a Game 1 loss to LeBron James and the Cavaliers.
Gilbert Arenas of the Wizards is none too pleased with his team's performance in a Game 1 loss to LeBron James and the Cavaliers. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
By Michael Wilbon
Sunday, April 23, 2006

CLEVELAND If the Washington Wizards keep playing as uninspired as they did in Game 1, LeBron James will take a broom to them.

You couldn't have asked a 21-year-old making his playoff debut to play any more fabulously than James did here Saturday. No playoff rookie has ever played 40 minutes in his debut, but James went the full 48 minutes against the Wizards, never taking a second to sit on the bench. Since the triple-double entered the basketball consciousness nearly 30 years ago, only one playoff rookie, the incomparable Magic Johnson, had recorded one in his first postseason game. But Magic's statistical mastery 26 years ago pales in comparison to James' 32 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists in Cleveland's 97-86 domination of Washington.

You don't want to make too much of being down one game, on the road, in a best-of-seven series. The Wizards were down two games to none last year against Chicago and won the next four games to take the series. Because the NBA's television partners drag out the first round for three weeks, the Wizards now have two days to gather themselves and come up with a plan and the energy to execute it. That said, last year's Bulls didn't have anybody like James and the Wizards simply may not have the resources to fight back, if Game 1 is any indication.

Wizards Coach Eddie Jordan, who is patient almost to a fault with this maddening team, didn't mince words after this sorry effort. "That was certainly playoff basketball by the Cavaliers," he said, "and it wasn't playoff basketball by the Wizards."

When asked what hurt his team more, James's performance, or that of Donyell Marshall (19 points, seven rebounds) and Eric Snow (14 points on 5-for-7 shooting), Jordan said what hurt the Wizards most was the Wizards. "My team not playing the way they're supposed to play hurt us," he said. "We didn't have the body language. We were undisciplined and we lost our focus. We didn't do anything. They were more composed. They executed better. They showed more enthusiasm. We didn't have any of it."

James had all of it. A national television audience didn't tune in to see the Wizards -- not outside metropolitan Washington, anyway. Folks tuned in to see James and whether he would be the Golden Child in the playoffs the way he was over the final quarter of the regular season. After shooting an air ball to start the game -- "I shot an air ball on my first shot in my first all-star game, too," he said -- it seemed the kid did nothing wrong.

Because the Wizards couldn't keep James out of the paint on some early possessions, Jordan went with Plan B, which was a double-team. And that was an even bigger disaster. See, James isn't Kobe Bryant. There are stretches, sometimes long ones, where Kobe doesn't trust his teammates, where when they miss open shots off his passes he stops giving them the ball. So a good, aggressive double-team can work against Kobe because sometimes he just isn't interested in passing.

James is always interested in passing. He had 12 assists three times this season and averages 7.5 per game. So when the Wizards went to their double-teams, James couldn't have been more excited. He handed out six assists in 10 possessions during one stretch.

Look, the Wizards don't do anything particularly well on defense, but they certainly don't double-team with any effectiveness. Jordan doesn't really believe in it, for starters. And against James, the second defender the Wizards sent to double-team often was a big man whom James could see coming. The Wizards didn't double-team fast. They didn't delay the double, say, off the first dribble. They didn't come from James's blindside to surprise him. They didn't smother him to make him give up the ball. They didn't try to force him into turnovers or to go to a certain side of the floor. They just doubled for the sake of doing it. And every single double-team seemed to be more inept than the previous one.

In fact, late in the game, James started retreating away from the basket to sucker the Wizards into their squeezably soft double-teams because he knew they were leaving his teammates wide open for easy shots. James even began using the second Wizards defender to screen off the man assigned to cover him, then dash to the basket. Not only was the double-team no threat to James, he baited the Wizards into using it to his advantage.

At 21 years old.

Early on, the Wizards left Snow and James found him. Then, the Wizards left Marshall, and James found him.


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