CLEVELAND The Washington Wizards are going to play down this loss, write it off as a rough season opener on the road in which some good opportunities got away. But coming back here and losing another squeaker to a team led by LeBron James should make them worry about being able to pass Cleveland down the road.
"I don't think we're getting a complex about this team or anything like that," Coach Eddie Jordan said after the Cavaliers played awfully, still won and continued tormenting his Wizards. "They're close games."
But so much of the end of Wednesday's game mirrored last season. Washington lost a winnable game against an Eastern Conference rival they have the talent to be better than. The Cavs made just 15 of 30 free throws and committed 16 turnovers compared to the Wizards' 11.
The Wizards came back from 10 points down in the fourth quarter to tie and eventually take the lead, only to have LeBron snatch it back and eventually walk off the floor with a 97-94 win. Etan Thomas was a monster inside for a good portion of the game, making his coach look good for naming him the starter at center over Brendan Driftwood.
But in the final 1 minute 30 seconds, interior defense killed the Wizards again. They gave up a driving dunk by Larry Hughes and a finger-roll layup by James after Antawn Jamison had given them their first lead of the quarter with a nice, little jump hook along the baseline.
Yes, it's the first of 82. But at some point soon, the Wizards need to break through against the Cavs before these close losses become contagious. Trust us, it can happen.
When the Knicks were trying to catch the Bulls in the 1990s, every game became a measuring stick for New York. It didn't matter whether it was November or May. The wrenching losses kept piling up, and the dominance Michael Jordan held over Patrick Ewing's team became more of a psychological barrier than a physical one; many of the Knicks began to feel trapped in the same bad dream, in which the game's best player always won, seemingly at the buzzer.
Funny, no, that Antonio Daniels said he felt trapped in a time machine last night?
It's because LeBron is trying to play the same game with the Wizards, trying to mentally destroy them, until they begin to believe they can't win.
He demoralized Gilbert Arenas's team five months ago, leading Cleveland to a first-round playoff win in a series that featured three one-point losses for the Wizards. Who can forget the image of James whispering to Arenas that if he missed two free throws in overtime, the series was over? Arenas missed, Cleveland won and James looked eerily prescient. The kid won the mind game, which is so important when the talent differential between teams is infinitesimal.
The Wizards can't keep losing heartbreakers against this team and believe that it won't corrode their confidence at some juncture.
Arenas fell into a funk early, picking up three fouls before the first half was over and never getting untracked offensively. He played well defensively and moved the ball and set up teammates well, distributing 11 assists. In fact, he deferred so much that at the end of the game the ball was barely in his hands with the game on the line.
Jarvis Hayes took one jumper in the final seconds and Jamison took the other. Hayes has a nice stroke and no unease about taking any long jumper with a game in the balance. But the most ardent Wizards fan had to be a little surprised Arenas did not take one of the last shots. Or Caron Butler for that matter, who led the Wizards with 23 points.
"Tough Juice," the nickname Jordan bestowed on Butler last season, fit him well Wednesday night. Butler was always a player who actually cared about getting in someone's grill when many of the Wizards lost their way defensively. Jordan's hope of his team undergoing a tough-juice transfusion this season is strong. He believes their veins will be cleansed of whatever substance makes players give up layups and, ostensibly, a playoff series. And for a while in the final minutes, they gave their coach reason for optimism.
Butler converted a tough, lean-in shot off the glass with 2:24 left to tie the score and came down with a monster rebound between the entire Cleveland front line on the other side of the court, calling time to give the Wizards possession and a chance to go ahead. It was the kind of rebound Washington never got last season against the Cavs in the final minutes.
But the Wizards couldn't finish. In Cleveland. Again. This is not to say they are going to become the Knicks against the Bulls in the 1990s, but they should pay attention to the parallels.
The general manager of the Knicks then, Ernie Grunfeld, is now running the Wizards, the team that wasted another opportunity to beat the Cavaliers in their season opener Wednesday night.
For all the resilience that had them overcoming a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter and seizing the lead on the road before a loud mob, for all of Thomas's strong play at center and a nice performance from the bench (Hayes, Daniels and Brendan Haywood combined for 26 points), the result was the same as it was in May. It might be just one of 82, but from where they mentally left off a season ago, this was important. The Wizards should not discount that.