Putting Some Muscle in It

By Michael Wilbon
Wednesday, April 26, 2006


Rarely if ever does a play eight minutes into a playoff game transform a team, but that's exactly what happened Tuesday night to dramatically alter not only Game 2 but perhaps the rest of this Washington Wizards-Cleveland Cavaliers series.

LeBron James and the Cavaliers were having their way with the Wizards for the second straight game, leading 19-8 with 3 minutes 47 seconds left in the first quarter when the Wizards did what they should have done Saturday, something teams used to do all the time in the playoffs.

They thumped him. That's right, Brendan Haywood grabbed LeBron's upper body and not only stopped him from sashaying to the basket for an easy hoop, but turned his face into a mask of momentary anger and game-long frustration.

It's no coincidence that the Wizards, moments after that foul, went on an 18-0 run that wiped out a 15-point deficit and the notion that the Golden Child is untouchable and infallible. It's no coincidence that LeBron missed 18 of 25 shots and never again went to the Wizards' basket like he owned it and them. He missed one breakaway dunk, going for the two-hand reverse where he could look back down the court and see if any Wizards were coming to take his head off. In football, which LeBron played a ton of in high school, they would have said, "He heard footsteps." Players, particularly the great ones, never admit they hear footsteps, but most do, especially when they're young and are feeling what it's like to get hammered playoff-style for the very first time.

Once upon a time, the Detroit Pistons employed "Jordan Rules" and threw Michael Jordan around like a rag doll -- and as great as Jordan was, it took him four tries to get past the Pistons in the playoffs.

The Wizards, if they're serious about winning this series, need to employ some LeBron Rules ASAP. He won't be happy about it and they shouldn't care.

Look, Haywood didn't go Bill Laimbeer on the kid when he fouled him. In Cleveland, they screamed bloody murder, called it a clothesline. You'd have thought James had been taken out by Night Train Lane. In fact, Haywood, who is by most accounts a rather gentle soul, tried to hold up LeBron, keep the kid from taking a header after getting him 'round the upper chest and shoulders.

For 30 years, they called those "hard playoff fouls."

Actually, when I asked former Knick and former Bull Charles Oakley, a native son of Cleveland, about the Haywood foul, he said: "What hard foul? I didn't see it." Oakley was sitting on the baseline. He saw it, all right. But to Oakley's old-school eyes, Haywood's foul was a love tap. Boy, has the NBA changed. LeBron later said, "I can take those hits." And physically, of course, he can.

But LeBron isn't used to being fouled like this. NBA players, not counting Ron Artest, hardly ever foul hard in the regular season. LeBron, remember, was playing only the second playoff game of his career, and in the first one the Wizards didn't get close enough to him on defense to read the script on the front of his jersey, much less hit him.

But Haywood hit him a little bit -- hit him hard enough anyway. "Laid the wood to him," is the way Caron Butler described it. Don't get me wrong, I'm not questioning the kid's determination or saying he got scared. But the foul rattled him. You hear players talk about knocking opponents off their rhythm. The foul certainly appeared to do that to LeBron.

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