Heart of Wizards' Problem Is That They Have None

By Michael Wilbon
Sunday, May 7, 2006

We know what to make of LeBron James now, but not entirely what to make of the Washington Wizards in the agony of their defeat.

The playoffs, in any professional sport, are a cold-blooded affair, and James appears perfectly suited to the occasion -- from making the plays a winner makes to issuing personal challenges. You really don't know what players and teams are made of until they're put to the test of the postseason.

What we might have been forced to conclude after watching the Cavaliers eliminate the Wizards, four games to two, is that Washington has a nice team with some highly-skilled players while Cleveland, in James, has a kid with a competitive heartlessness that is required of most champions.

The defining moment of the Wizards-Cavaliers series might have occurred late in overtime of Friday night's Game 6 when James, only 21, walked up to Washington's Gilbert Arenas while the Wizards were still leading by a point and said, "If you miss both of those free throws, the game is over."

There are only a handful of players bold enough to do what James did at that moment, which is to call out an all-star playing at home, standing on the foul line with the game in his hands, moments after sending the game into overtime with a remarkable play of his own.

It's a short list, really, at least over the past 25 years. We're talking about Larry Bird and Michael Jordan above everybody else. Magic Johnson might have thought it, but never would have said it, and if so only with a smile. James wasn't just talking smack; he issued a dare of sorts.

During a very similar moment in the NBA Finals nearly 10 years ago, Chicago's Scottie Pippen walked up to Karl Malone before the first of two free throws and said, "The Mailman doesn't deliver on Sundays." Malone, not coincidentally in most minds, missed two free throws and Utah lost a razor-close game. Pippen already had four championship rings by then but certainly was emboldened by the presence of Jordan on his team.

If the Cavaliers get blasted out of the playoffs in the next round by the Pistons, which is what most folks expect, it may turn out that James's bodacious behavior is reserved only for opponents he thinks he can chump. But perhaps it will turn out that James is simply a bad, bad man.

Of course, Arenas missed both free throws.

James walked back to the bench, and hundreds of people sitting nearby saw him wave his hand in front of his throat and say to his teammates that Arenas was a "[bleeping] wimp."

No, Arenas isn't anything close to that, and James will surely try to deny it, except that too many people looked right in his mouth when he said it.

But if Arenas is going to ascend to the point that he can lead a team into championship contention, he's going to have to hit those two free throws. In fact, as good as Arenas already is, he might need to be a touch more cold-blooded himself, if that sort of heartlessness can be acquired after the age of, oh, 12.

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