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A Defenseless Game 5

By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, May 4, 2006

CLEVELAND

There's a simple rule in playoff basketball, perhaps the only important rule: no layups and dunks. Not in traffic, not late in the game and certainly not at the end of overtime when you're nursing a one-point lead on the road in high-stakes Game 5.

If the Washington Wizards could stop somebody from making open layups, they'd be sitting pretty right now, but they couldn't. Seems they never do.

LeBron James's driving layup in overtime was the real killer, the game-winner for Cleveland and probably a series back-breaker for the Wizards. But there were so many Cleveland layups you lost count, most of them coming from tiny guards Eric Snow and Flip Murray, a jump shooter.

When James received the inbounds pass from Larry Hughes, you knew it was over. Caron Butler and Jared Jeffries, the two Wizards entrusted to defend James, had fouled out. So James got it with 3.6 seconds left and went to the rim as easy as Saturday morning at the Y. This is why he's the Golden Child, because he can hit you with a triple-double one night and a game-winner in the same series. Count me as a witness.

Oh, yes it was a fabulous game, as smooth and rhythmic a game as we've seen in the first round of these playoffs. And no doubt, the Wizards have to be credited for coming back from seven down with 78 seconds left to tie it and force overtime, for nailing one clutch shot after another late in the game. But how do you get more heartbreaking than giving up a layup at the buzzer?

You don't.

You've never seen a team give up so many layups, seriously -- not in the playoffs. And in the end it undermined a 44-point performance by Gilbert Arenas, whose pair of foul shots with 3.6 seconds left should have carried the Wizards back home with a 3-2 lead and a chance to win this series at home Friday night.

So how do you lose a game when your Big Three scores 96 points and your team shoots 52.4 percent?

You let LeBron James score 45, Larry Hughes score 24 and allow the other team to shoot 54.3 percent.

If it's offense you want from your playoff basketball, this is your series, as evidenced by Cleveland's 121-120 victory. If you're tired of forearms in the back and blocked shots and double-teams limiting what the stars can do, then you should pray the Wizards and Cavaliers go the full seven games, which they probably will. Defense indeed wins championships, which neither of these teams is in danger of doing this spring. But offense, especially when players this skilled meet so little resistance, is awfully entertaining stuff for a playoff prelim.

The lane was open, the three-point arc was unprotected and the two teams exploited every opening. Arenas, unbelievably, hit 14 of 24 shots and all 10 of his free throws. Jamison hit 13 of 24 shots. There was no shot they couldn't get or make.

But the same was true of the Cavaliers. James made 14 of 23 shots and 17 of 18 free throws.

And this time, unlike in Washington's two victories this series, King James had enough help, what with Snow hitting 8 of 12 shots and Murray hitting 5 of 9.

It's hard to believe the No. 1 topic in the NBA right now is defense, concerns about the contentious nature of these playoffs, especially as it concerned sniping at the referees and the particularly nasty fouls. It's hard to imagine the NBA has ever handed out more fines or suspensions the first 10 days of the playoffs. It all came to a head Tuesday night in Phoenix when the Suns' Raja Bell used his entire left arm to clothesline Kobe Bryant and send the Lakers' star to the ground.

Attending the Cavaliers-Wizards game here, Commissioner David Stern was emphatic in his criticism of Bell's hack on Bryant. "There was no basketball play there," Stern said. "It was a very unmanly act. It was a very unnecessary."

Stern said the suspension of Bell, a player with no reputation for dirty play and at such a critical point in the series, is putting players on notice that the league will not tolerate cheap shots. "Violent acts," he said, "do not have a place in our game."

Actually, Stern seemed nearly as annoyed with coaches criticizing referees as a general strategy than anything players have done. Used to be the off-day complaining, led by Pat Riley and Phil Jackson, was seen as rather comical. Riley, after a loss with the Knicks or Heat, would accuse the NBA of favoring Michael Jordan. Jackson, after a loss with the Bulls or Lakers, would accuse the NBA of favoring Patrick Ewing or Alonzo Mourning.

The between-games talk would center on fixes and conspiracies.

This postseason it seems every coach, no matter how junior, has started tweaking the officials. No coach has been fined (yet). But Shaq and Jermaine O'Neal have been fined, surely after taking cues from their coaches, for criticizing the referees. The Wizards' Eddie Jordan and Cleveland's Mike Brown walked right up to the line last weekend with their critiques of the officials.

But now, after 20 years of this junk, Stern says, "It has a corrosive effect on fan confidence and the like. It detracts. So, this year we decided that the limits had to be enforced."

Denver's Reggie Evans should have been suspended for grabbing Chris Kaman's crotch during a game, and Bell had to be suspended for mugging Bryant.

The Wizards aren't without a role in all of this, though it is a small one. It was Brendan Haywood's foul on James that turned Game 2 toward the Wizards' direction. In the opening minutes of Game 5, Etan Thomas fouled former Wizards teammate Larry Hughes while going to the basket, and Hughes hit the floor hard. The referees gave Thomas a flagrant foul, even though replays showed Thomas did nothing extreme.

"In the regular season, you shoot the two foul shots and move on," the Wizards' Antonio Daniels said. "But in the playoffs that foul may lead 'SportsCenter.' It's the most emotional time of the year."

Even so, Daniels expressed the sentiment that the Wizards need to foul more, not less. "Not harder," he said, "but more often because we can't give up layups."

Too bad only a reporter seemed to be listening.

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