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Star-Crossed Wizards Ready for the Cavaliers

By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 20, 2007

The Washington Wizards had nine games to figure out how to play without all-stars Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler, and while they won only two of those games, Coach Eddie Jordan thinks his team gathered enough data to experience some success when they open their first-round playoff series at Cleveland on Sunday.

"We have a point of reference now," Jordan said. "We can throw everything else out the window -- with Caron and Gil -- and just concentrate on what we saw in those games."

The lessons learned include:

· Starting with the April 4 game in which Arenas went down after playing only two minutes, the Wizards went 2-7 -- but were competitive, with close losses to the playoff-bound New Jersey Nets (twice), Miami Heat and Orlando Magic.

They took the Nets to overtime in New Jersey before falling, 120-114, on April 7 and led the Nets by five with under two minutes remaining before losing, 96-92, three days later. At various times, the team failed to create a quality shot, missed rebounds, missed free throws or was unable to get a key stop.

"Because of the slide we just had, we've learned that we can be in games," guard Antonio Daniels said. "We've had opportunities to win these games with this team. Just like Coach Jordan said, we've played good for 46 minutes but when you're missing closers like Caron and Gil, you can't play good for 46 minutes. We have to play well or almost flawless for 48 minutes. I think we know what we are capable of doing."

· They can hold their own against the Cavaliers without Arenas and Butler. The Wizards learned that in a 99-94 home loss to Cleveland on April 6. LeBron James finished with 25 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists but made 7 of 23 shots and was defended effectively at times by DeShawn Stevenson, Jarvis Hayes and Antawn Jamison.

The Wizards led by 10 early in the third period, but James scored 14 points in the fourth and put the game away late.

"We have to make LeBron work for everything he gets and keep Drew Gooden, [Zydrunas] Ilgauskas and [Anderson] Varejao off the boards," Stevenson said. "We can let anyone else have a good game but if we do those two things right there, we're going to put ourselves in a great situation."

· The Wizards' margin for error is minimal even on nights when individual players turn in impressive performances. The Wizards lost to Charlotte on April 4 when Daniels finished with 17 points and 18 assists, lost to New Jersey when Hayes scored a career-high 29 points on April 7 and they lost twice when centers Etan Thomas and Brendan Haywood posted double-doubles.

Tuesday's 95-89 home loss to Orlando provided an example of what the Wizards are facing. They used a 28-12 third quarter to take a four-point lead into the fourth and Antawn Jamison finished with a season-high 48 points. They lost mainly because they made only 25 of 44 (56.8 percent) free throws.

One thing the Wizards aren't doing is playing up the traditional and usually meaningless "us against the world" stance that athletes and teams sometimes take when they are dubbed heavy underdogs.

"I don't care exactly how they view us," Jordan said. "I just know that we've put enough on the table to get some respect."

Wizards N otes: Arenas was at Verizon Center yesterday morning and several teammates said he has offered encouragement as the team gears up for the playoffs.

"It's killing him not to a part of this but he's here for us," Stevenson said. "He's pulling for us."

Jordan said the team has a special motto going into the playoffs but he won't reveal what it is.

"What we're going to use will stay in the locker room," Jordan joked. "If we win, we'll let you know and if we lose, you won't ever know."

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