Wizards Bounce Into Playoffs
Thursday, April 19, 2007
INDIANAPOLIS, April 18 -- They won't have all-stars Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler or much momentum. No one outside of their locker room will give them a chance. But ready or not, the Washington Wizards will open a first-round playoff series in Cleveland against LeBron James and the Cavaliers this weekend.
The Eastern Conference playoff picture wasn't cleared up until late Wednesday night when the Wizards grabbed the seventh seed by beating Indiana, 98-95, after the Cavaliers leapfrogged the Chicago Bulls for the second seed by beating the Milwaukee Bucks as the Bulls lost to the New Jersey Nets.
The Wizards (41-41) pushed the Cavaliers to six games before falling in the first round last spring; three of the games were decided by a single point, including the decisive Game 6 when Damon Jones made a 17-foot jump shot with 4.8 seconds remaining in overtime to give the Cavaliers a 114-113 victory.
Making the Cavaliers work that hard for a series victory will be a much tougher task this time for the Wizards. They will play without Arenas, who is out for the season with a left knee injury, and likely will play the series without Butler, who is wearing a cast to protect a broken bone on his right hand.
Butler will have the cast removed on Monday and hasn't ruled out a return should the series go long, but Coach Eddie Jordan said the most likely scenario is that Butler won't play unless the Wizards advance to the second round.
Doing that might be considered just short of a miracle.
"There's no pressure on us at all," said forward Antawn Jamison, who followed up a season-high 48-point scoring effort in Tuesday's home loss to the Orlando Magic with 19 points and 11 rebounds in Wednesday's win at Indiana. "People are not expecting us to win this series. I don't think people expect us to win a game, so for us, hey, you know me baby. I love being the spoiler and I love having fun. I'm going to enjoy every minute of the playoffs and do everything possible to win this series."
Washington's fate hung in the balance Wednesday night until forward Darius Songaila sank a pair of free throws, giving them a 98-95 lead with 17 seconds to play. The Pacers never got a potential game-tying shot off as Jarvis Hayes intercepted Danny Granger's pass to the wing with 6.9 seconds left and the Wizards dribbled the clock out.
Had the Wizards lost, they would have dropped to the eighth seed and faced the top-seeded Detroit Pistons.
Jamison and Songaila (12 points on 4-of-8 shooting) were two of six Wizards to score in double figures, while Mike Dunleavy Jr. capped a dreadful Pacers season with 17 points. At various points, the Wizards benefited from contributions by Brendan Haywood, who scored 11 points and made two key blocks in the fourth quarter, and Antonio Daniels, who finished with 13 points and nine assists and banked in a running jump shot to give Washington a 95-93 lead with 58 seconds remaining.
It will take all of that and more to deal with James and the Cavaliers. Cleveland won the regular season series 2-1 but the only game of relevance was a 99-94 Cavaliers victory at Verizon Center on April 6 because that was the only time that Washington played without Arenas and Butler.
"We probably know them as well as any team in the NBA," said Jamison, who scored 27 points in that April 6 loss. "We just have to get ready to play."
Of course, the main strategy will revolve around handling James, who shot 51 percent in last season's playoff series and averaged 35.7 points, 7.5 rebounds and 5.6 assists. He also made game-winning shots to decide Games 3 and 5.
"We have to do as much as we can individually against LeBron," said Jordan, who is the first coach in franchise history since Gene Shue (1982-83 to 1984-85) to lead the franchise to three consecutive playoff appearances. "And we need good help defense because we understand that he can get his teammates involved so, while we're trying to minimize him and limit his opportunities, we can't not worry about other guys."
Wizards Notes: It was the second straight season that the Wizards entered the final night of the regular season with their playoff position hanging in the balance. Last April 19, a 96-90 win at Detroit enabled the Wizards to finish 42-40 and hold on to the fifth seed.