Just Off the Mark

lebron james - cleveland cavaliers
LeBron James (27 points, eight rebounds, seven assists) and the Cavaliers own the glass Wednesday, outrebounding the Wizards 56-38 and 17-10 in the final period. (Jonathan Newton - The Post)
By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 26, 2007

CLEVELAND, April 25 -- Like an annoying piece of gum they couldn't get off the bottom of their sneakers, the highly favored Cleveland Cavaliers just couldn't shake off the Washington Wizards on Wednesday night.

Even as three of their key players clanged shot after shot off the rim while the Cavaliers seemingly had the game under control, the Wizards fought back from a 15-point deficit and kept a capacity crowd at Quicken Loans Arena from filing out until the final buzzer. When it sounded, the Cavaliers were winners, 109-102, but the Wizards could take some confidence from the way they finished.

Cleveland leads the best-of-seven series 2-0. Game 3 is Saturday night at Verizon Center and while the odds of advancing to the second round are stacked against them, the Wizards will go into the game knowing they can compete and even beat the Cavaliers.

If only they can make a few more open shots.

Antawn Jamison pulled his weight Wednesday night, scoring a game-high 31 points on 12-of-24 shooting while reserves Brendan Haywood, Darius Songaila and Roger Mason contributed a total of 36 points.

That added up to just less than enough on a night when starters Antonio Daniels, DeShawn Stevenson and Jarvis Hayes combined to make 9 of 35 shots and only 1 of 9 three-point attempts.

"We just hope there is a comfort level coming home, that there's a little momentum knowing we can play with this team if we can just knock down some shots," Coach Eddie Jordan said. "If we can get some momentum going with us, maybe we can change the series but we have to make shots to get it going."

In addition to dealing with Drew Gooden, who scored 19 of his 24 points in the first half, one main issue facing the Wizards as the series plays out will be rebounding.

After holding their own on the boards in a 97-82 Game 1 loss on Sunday, the Wizards were beaten to rebounds in several key situations Wednesday night. Cleveland held a 56-38 edge overall and a 17-10 advantage in the fourth quarter.

The Wizards got as close as three with 18 seconds remaining when Hayes, who finished with five points 2-of-13 shooting, connected on a three-pointer. Mason quickly fouled Larry Hughes but the former Wizard made two free throws for the Cavaliers and Hayes missed a three-point attempt on the next Washington possession.

LeBron James scored 27 points with eight rebounds and seven assists for Cleveland while Hughes added 19 points, 8 rebounds and 5 assists.

As he did in Game 1, Jordan elected to go with a smallish lineup down the stretch with the hope that he'd trade size and rebounding for offense. After a rough third quarter during which they were outscored 24-15, the Wizards rode Jamison's 15 points in the fourth. They shot 50 percent and outscored Cleveland 39-34 but couldn't quite get out of the hole they dug in the third quarter.

"We just have to keep working, keep working," Jamison said. "A couple of miscues here or a rebound there and it might be a different series. You just have to look at it as they defended their home court and now we're going home to our crowd where we're going to have confidence. If we can take a game and get some momentum, we can make a series of it."

The Wizards went down 0-2 in their first-round series against the Chicago Bulls two years ago but recovered by winning the next four games. Pulling that off without injured all-stars Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler would be close to miraculous, but the Wizards do feel that they can avoid a sweep and make Cleveland work hard for a series victory everyone seems to have already handed them.

"It's not about that," James said when asked about the possibility of a sweep. "We're not overconfident right now because we know it's a long series. We have to think about Game 3 and then we can think about the next game."

The game took an emotional turn for both teams and the crowd late in the third quarter and Wizards center Brendan Haywood was in the middle of it. After Haywood and Cleveland's Anderson Varejao got tangled up while battling for rebounding position, Haywood was hit with a technical foul for contact or words he exchanged with Varejao.

Haywood, who helped the Wizards hang around by scoring six of his 13 points in the third, was booed lustily as he left the floor and welcomed the attention by raising his right arm in the air and waving at the crowd. That act of defiance was symbolic on a night when the Wizards made up for a disparity of raw talent and some poor shooting with plenty of heart.

"Eddie came in here after the game and told us: We're right there," Mason said. "They did what they needed to do at home. Now we have to do what we're supposed to do in Washington."

Wizards Notes: The league released updated scheduling information for the playoffs but the time of and broadcast information for Monday's Game 4 at Verizon Center has yet to be determined.

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