By Michael Wilbon
Monday, May 1, 2006
They'd rather be 13 behind than 14 ahead. The Washington Wizards can't stand prosperity. A big lead, as they reminded us Friday night, is positively the worst thing that can happen to them. A lead apparently puts the Wizards to sleep. But a double-digit deficit, one that threatens to end the season, is yummy -- just the thing to get their juices stirring enough to play their best, or something reasonably close to it.
The Wizards ought to spot the opponent a dozen points every night because usually the climb back gets their attention in a way nothing else does. They were a baker's dozen down a couple of times in yesterday's Game 4 with Cleveland. They were down 13 in the third quarter and LeBron James, who couldn't have been any more comfortable if he was playing H-O-R-S-E, was trying to find the Wizards' throat with his foot.
But that's just what the Wizards want. Actually, it's what they absolutely need. The biggest problem with the Wizards' Game 4 come-from-behind victory was that they got the lead too early. Of course, anything with more than, oh, 30 seconds to play is too early. Talk about needing a closer; the moment the Wizards' lead hit 10 points, 90-80, the trouble really began. It's always bases loaded, nobody out when the Wizards have a lead.
"We can't stand prosperity," Coach Eddie Jordan said, "but we are resilient enough. I don't want us to get into that mind-set that we have to fall behind in order to attack."
But it's too late, of course. The Wizards are already in that mind-set.
Gilbert Arenas said as much, how it's "easier to play from behind," because this group of players is better in a "nothing-to-lose" mind-set.
Arenas, trying to find that nothing-to-lose zone, went to the locker room at halftime and immediately changed every bit of his uniform, from his jersey to his shorts to his socks and shoes. And since the rest of the Wizards are slightly less, um, eccentric than Arenas, Jordan had to help the rest of the group along.
Jordan's remedy: Call no plays in the second half.
That's right, a coach who teaches an offense as patterned and as complex as the Princeton offense, told his team at halftime, "Go play."
Jordan said he had never done such a thing before, not to such a dramatic degree. He did it because he could sense his players were tight and because the Cavaliers, with some assistance from former Wizard Larry Hughes, had scouted Washington to death. Jordan could feel that the Cleveland players knew much of what was coming. They knew his "routes" to use Jordan's word.
With the offense already second-nature to the players, Jordan knew they wouldn't turn into the vintage UNLV of the early-1990s. He knew they would run things they'd been running, or at least practicing, for two years. So he told them: "Just go play. And loosen up. I'm not going to call plays."
Arenas probably benefited most from the Plan B. Refreshingly candid, Arenas admitted to feeling a little hung over from Friday night's Game 3 loss that should have been a 15-point Wizards victory. "We were really upset about Game 3," he said. "We let our city down."
So the first half of Game 4 was a continuation of the second half of Game 3. "We were definitely flat," he said. "No energy."
So Jordan's "go play" edict was music to his ears. He called it "like playing outside . . . stop thinking and play basketball."
It was Antawn Jamison who kept the Wizards hanging close early with his 17 first-half points. And it was Arenas scoring 20 points in the fourth quarter to close.
The story line that matters was Jordan's switcheroo helping his team overcome another 24-karat gold performance by James, who has been positively great in three of the four games this series.
It was after the game that things turned ugly and all too predictable.
Sadly, the playoffs have become, more than ever, about officiating. Phil Jackson and Pat Riley popularized this junk, complaining about everything under the moon following each game and throughout the off-day. They expect to be fined, and usually are. Now, every coach in the playoffs is following the icons. Jordan complained before the game that LeBron was getting away with too many traveling violations. Afterward, Cavs Coach Mike Brown and LeBron started setting up the Game 5 refs by complaining that the Golden Child was whistled yesterday for too many offensive fouls (four). James said he believes he has been "whistled for more offensive fouls in this series than all 82 games combined. They're trying to take my aggressiveness away."
LeBron called them "questionable calls."
Brown called them "shocking."
Gentlemen, reach for your checkbooks.
Luckily, whining was secondary yesterday to some pretty dramatic basketball.
All day yesterday, tenacity was on display in the NBA playoffs. The Los Angeles Lakers certainly had an abundance of it in their overtime victory over Phoenix. And the Suns, though they lost, were nearly as stubborn.
The Chicago Bulls -- thought to be overmatched -- took a second straight game from Miami.
Nobody has gone down easy in the first round of the 2006 playoffs. The bottom seed in the West, Sacramento, evened its series against San Antonio late Sunday night. The bottom seed in the East, Milwaukee, beat the Pistons by 20 points on Saturday. The Bucks' beatdown of Detroit was so surprising it might as well have been a college game. In fact, of the 16 playoff teams, 15 had won at least one game at home by the time the Wizards had finished off the Cavs last night.
The Wizards had to work hard to join the others. Who knows how they got it in their heads that they can play one good quarter and win a playoff game. But they put together a 40-17 run when it mattered.
The big crowd left happy and hopeful, just the way they arrived Friday night for Game 3, thinking one big playoff victory might lead to another.
And that's the way it works for the Lakers and Bulls and Mavericks and most other teams. But the Wizards don't march to that beat. They'll go to Cleveland for Wednesday's Game 5 and who knows what they'll deliver, if they'll bury the Cavaliers or be buried? Maybe Arenas will change everything down to his undies at halftime; maybe he'll keep wearing the same uniform right through the end of Game 6. We don't know, and certainly the Wizards don't know. But with six games and a trip back home for a date with the Golden Child here on Friday night, the unknown has made for a long and interesting series.