By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 26, 2006
CLEVELAND, April 25 -- The Washington Wizards were humiliated after dropping Game 1 of their first-round Eastern Conference playoff series to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday, but instead of cowering in front of the growing legend that is LeBron James, Coach Eddie Jordan's players dug in and redeemed themselves.
The turnaround began with a practice on Sunday at Verizon Center. Observers of the two-hour workout said it was as focused, intense and spirited a session as Wizards have engaged in all season.
With an 89-84 victory in Game 2 Tuesday night, the Wizards showed that they are serious about being something other than James's playoff prop. Game 3 is Friday night at Verizon Center, where the Wizards beat the Cavaliers twice during the regular season.
The Wizards stole home-court advantage in the best-of-seven series because their three best players bounced back from rough performances in Game 1. After totaling 48 points on Saturday, Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler scored 72 Tuesday night while making several crucial plays down the stretch.
"We were so disappointed in ourselves," said Jamison, who scored 11 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter. "To come out in the first game like that. National TV. The spotlight. And we pretty much laid an egg. We embarrassed the coaching staff, we embarrassed ourselves. We showed that in practice [Sunday]. It wasn't one of those practices where we just showed up, took a few shots and went home. Coach was on us and we went at it. That's what you saw in this game."
In a game where both teams shot under 40 percent from the field and momentum swung from sideline to sideline all game long, the Wizards won because of a handful of possessions in the fourth quarter.
Washington led by three with less than 15 seconds remaining but Cleveland had the ball. James was double-teamed at the top of the key and shot a pass down the lane to Anderson Varejao, who was under the basket when he caught the pass and had a chance to make a layup that would have trimmed the Washington lead to one.
However, the 6-foot-10 Varejao never saw Arenas creep in behind him. Arenas reached in and, without fouling, slapped the ball off Varajeo's knee. Jamison grabbed the loose ball and made two free throws after he was fouled by Varejao.
After James missed a three-pointer with 6.9 seconds remaining, Jamison snagged the rebound. When the final buzzer sounded, Jamison whipped out his mouth guard and sprinted to the Wizards' bench, where he was greeted by happy teammates.
Arenas, who was off for three quarters before rallying late in Game 1, finished with 30 points, 6 assists and 6 rebounds. Jamison scored 11 points Saturday and was 1 of 5 from three-point range but hit one of the biggest shots of the season in Game 2, a three-pointer over the 6-foot-10 Drew Gooden that gave the Wizards a five-point lead with 2 minutes 5 seconds remaining.
Butler, who fouled out in the final minute, carried the Wizards early. He sparked an 18-0 first-half run by scoring 11 points in a span of two minutes and finished with 21 points and nine rebounds while taking his turns defending James.
The Wizards only shot 39.7 percent but they made up for it with a vastly improved defensive effort, particularly against James. As they did in Game 1, Jared Jeffries, Antonio Daniels and Butler took turns defending James but Washington's double-teams were more decisive, their rotations were more crisp and their overall approach was more aggressive.
After posting a triple-double in Game 1 with 32 points, 11 assists and 11 rebounds, James finished with 26 points, 9 rebounds and only 2 assists in Game 2. He turned over the ball 10 times after turning it over only four times on Saturday.
It didn't hurt that the Wizards finally started treating James like the up-and-comer he is rather than an established superstar.
Cleveland led 19-8 in the first quarter when James drove down the lane and was greeted with a hard foul by Brendan Haywood. James made two free throws but clearly was bothered by the contact, and it was after Haywood's foul that Butler started drilling jump shots and the Wizards went on that 18-0 run.
"Antawn and I were talking on the bus coming over here about how we had to" play tougher defense, Butler said. "We knew Gilbert was going to come back strong so it was up to us to make shots and play better than we did in the first game. We didn't want to go back to Washington down 0-2."
James scored nine fourth-quarter points but made a major mistake when the Cavaliers were scrapping to stay in the game late. With the Wizards ahead 82-78, James and Zydrunas Ilgauskas went after a ball as it headed out of bounds. James got to it first but made a huge error -- one coaches warn about at earliest stages of youth basketball -- by flipping the ball back under his own rim.
Arenas beat Eric Snow to the ball and made a layup while he was fouled by Snow. Arenas completed the three-point play, giving the Wizards an 85-78 lead with 1:34 remaining.
Gooden, who finished with 24 points and a game-high16 rebounds, made two free throws and after Arenas missed a quick shot on the next possession, and then former Wizard Larry Hughes froze Jamison with pump fake and made a jumper, cutting the Wizards' lead to 85-82 with 42 seconds remaining.
Arenas drew a foul on Hughes and made a pair of free throws with 25.5 seconds remaining.
"We had two days to watch game tape and we saw how we played" in Game 1, Arenas said. "We didn't play very well. We picked the best time, on ABC, to have our worst game of the season. So, we just went out and said we were going to play our basketball. That's what we did."