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.
The Wizards had the kind of postseason that makes you want to hug them one moment and scream at them the next. It's an immensely likeable team, from Eddie Jordan through the end of the bench, filled with the kind of people folks find easy to root for. There's not a Darius Miles on the bench, thank God.
On the other hand, the Wizards gave away three games they should have won, making you wonder what you have to wonder at the end of such a heartbreaking series.
What do the Wizards have to do to get better, to at least be a serious contender for the conference championship?
All over the playgrounds of D.C., and wherever hard-core basketball is discussed, it's said matter-of-factly that the Wizards don't have the "dog" in them necessary to be a contender. Just like "bad" came to mean good, "dog" in today's jargon means "edge" or "ruthlessness."
James is ruthless.
The Wizards are not.
The temptation after the local team loses a series by dropping three one-point games, two after having 14-point leads, is to make radical changes. And almost always, as the Miami Heat may soon find out, that's an overreaction.
Ruthlessness or killer instinct or the ability to close -- whatever you want to call it -- usually isn't taught. But it can be acquired. President of Basketball Operations Ernie Grunfeld has always had a keen eye for talent. Well, heartlessness, as James demonstrated in his exaggerated and surely arrogant manner Friday night, is an asset, especially when the most talented player on the team has so much dog in him. Whether through trade or free agent signing or drafting some unknown kid from some faraway place, the men scouting for the Wizards will have to do their best to find one . . . or two. A personality transplant may not be necessary, but they do need somebody who can make opponents wince and teammates a little uncomfortable from time to time.
The last thing the Wizards need is a sea change, anything that even hints of starting over. We don't know if the close losses to Cleveland suggest the Wizards are close to a playoff breakthrough; the Cavaliers, after all, started the postseason as a neophyte when it comes to the playoffs. Arenas said Friday night as he exited the arena that he planned to show up and shoot hundreds of free throws Saturday. That's a nice first step for this team. In order to get even, perhaps the Wizards need to get angry and stay that way for a while.