Butler Returns, Wizards Claw for Win

Caron Butler, working against Cleveland's Sasha Pavlovic, led the Wizards with 19 points in his return to the lineup after missing 17 games with a hip injury.
Caron Butler, working against Cleveland's Sasha Pavlovic, led the Wizards with 19 points in his return to the lineup after missing 17 games with a hip injury. (By Pablo Martinez Monsivais -- Associated Press)
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By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 14, 2008

The calendar read March 13, but last night's game at Verizon Center had the vibe of a playoff contest. The return of Washington Wizards all-star Caron Butler and the presence of Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James set the table for an intense game that stoked the sellout crowd.

The Wizards, who emerged with a 101-99 victory after James missed a potential game-winning three-pointer as time expired, can only hope for a similar outcome should the rivals meet in a playoff series for the third straight year.

Seven Wizards scored in double figures, including Butler (19 points and six rebounds in 41 minutes). James finished with 25 points on 9-of-22 shooting for the Cavaliers.

The Wizards (32-32), who moved back to .500 for the first time since Feb. 6, are in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, two games behind Toronto and 1 1/2 games ahead of Philadelphia.

Wizards guard DeShawn Stevenson (13 points, 5 assists and 3 steals) drew a charge on a driving James with 13.2 seconds remaining. Then, on the game's final possession, Stevenson defended James one-on-one and got a hand in James's face as he attempted to make a step-back three-pointer for the game-winner.

Afterward, Stevenson said the Wizards had something to prove because Cleveland knocked them out of the playoffs the last two seasons and because the Cavaliers walked onto the court last night with an unmistakable "swagger." There was trash-talking throughout the game, much of it involving Stevenson, James and Cavaliers guard Damon Jones.

"I was just trying to get up under his skin," Stevenson said of James. "Make him think about me, playing, competing and talking trash. Sometimes you have to do that with those guys. Those guys play guys who are scared of them all day and that can get under their skin a little bit."

Stevenson wasn't done. As he left the building, he was asked about James again.

"He's overrated," Stevenson said. "And you can say I said that."

Jones, who exchanged words and hand gestures with Stevenson throughout the game, understood Stevenson's motives.

"He's just trying to create a little swagger for himself and give them a little edge," said Jones, who eliminated the Wizards with a game-winning jumper in Game 6 of the 2006 playoffs. "It makes perfect sense. We've handled them pretty well lately and you gotta do what you can."

Butler, returning from a left hip injury, connected on his first shot attempt -- a 20-foot jumper -- and closed the first quarter with a team-high nine points on 4-of-6 shooting.

He looked surprisingly crisp for not having played since Feb. 5 and was eager to mix it up with any Cavalier that crossed his path, including Sasha Pavlovic, who was on the receiving end of a Butler elbow when the two got tangled up midway through the opening quarter.

Butler said the hip felt good after the game as he headed out to celebrate his 28th birthday.

"The hip feels fine," said Butler, who missed 19 games with the injury, including 16 straight. "I'm just looking forward to celebrating this birthday with the rest of my family tonight and then getting back to work."

The mood inside the Wizards' locker room would not have been so joyous had James connected on his last-second attempt. The Wizards had elected not to double-team him once he received the inbounds pass from Jones with 7.2 seconds left.

James, who made two free throws to clinch Cleveland's 90-89 win over the Wizards on Feb. 22, chose a different strategy this time.

"I wanted to go for the win," James said. "I didn't want to play overtime. I missed. I'm human."

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