Painfully Predictable

By Michael Wilbon
Saturday, May 6, 2006

To give away one, as precious as playoff games are, is demoralizing. To give away three in one series is a sin. The Washington Wizards will spend the entire offseason -- probably years beyond that -- feeling like they were the better team in this series with the Cleveland Cavaliers. But they didn't prove it. The Wizards blew a 14-point lead at home in Game 3, a one-point lead in Cleveland in the final three seconds of Game 5 and, just for the sake of consistency, a 14-point lead in Game 6.

Damon Jones, who played all of 14.1 seconds, touched the ball only one time and put the Wizards out of their misery with a jump shot that erased yet another Washington lead. The final score last night was 114-113 Cleveland, just as Wednesday night's Game 5 final was 121-120 Cleveland.

"The basketball gods weren't with us in this series," Gilbert Arenas said afterward. "To lose three on game-winning shots . . ."

In the Wizards' case, they were game-losing, series-killing shots Cleveland hit. And you have to start with Arenas's pair of missed free throws with 15.1 seconds left that could have pushed the Wizards' lead to three, but instead left them only one point ahead and wide open for another Cavaliers game-winner.

It's very difficult to paint Arenas as the goat for missing the free throws because it was his 36-point performance that led the Wizards into position to win it, and since it was his remarkably bold and deep three-pointer with a few seconds left in regulation that sent the game into overtime. The 31-foot shot was such a stunner, LeBron James said it "felt like the Titanic . . . like the ship was almost sunk," even though the game was tied. "He shot it from the ESPN booth, from where Hubie Brown and those guys were sitting. It was an unbelievable shot."

But it didn't win the game. It didn't get the Wizards back to Cleveland for Game 7.

"Still," Arenas said afterward, "I missed 'em. . . . An 80 percent free throw shooter and you miss?"

After the first miss, James walked to the foul line, put his hand on Arenas's shoulder and said, "If you miss both of those free throws, the game is over."

"It was something I would have said," Arenas said with his usual candor.

And then the Wizards did what they've done all season: relinquish the lead once again. They gave it up despite the best intentions and a sincere effort. They double-teamed James, who had already beat them twice in the series, and "blitzed" Larry Hughes, to use James's word. Hughes shot a pass to Jones, the sunglass-wearing, three-finger flashin', self-proclaimed greatest shooter who ever lived, and he fired up the 19-footer for the lead with 4.8 seconds to play.

It was too fun a series to end like this, without a Game 7, without more drama and more trash-talking and more shot-making from James and Arenas.

Nothing in the Eastern Conference was more fun in this first round than Cavaliers vs. Wizards.

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