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Wizards' Big Three Has the Celtics' Number

The Celtics' Paul Pierce, who played 37 minutes, sends the Wizards' Antonio Daniels to the court on a drive late in the fourth quarter.
The Celtics' Paul Pierce, who played 37 minutes, sends the Wizards' Antonio Daniels to the court on a drive late in the fourth quarter. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
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Stevenson presents the same kind of problems for Ray Allen on the perimeter that Bruce Bowen presented him when he played in the West. He's a stone-cold competitor who uses his feet and his chest to make life miserable on the perimeter for all-star guards.

Arenas playing 20-plus minutes off the bench presents all kinds of matchup problems. There is all this chatter about whether Arenas is hurting or helping the Wizards coming back slowly from knee surgery after missing 66 games. And it needs to stop.

Lost in the defensive lapse at the end of an agonizing loss to Milwaukee in his first game back last week -- and in all the criticism for his drama-king entrance midway through the first quarter -- is the fact that one of the most potent offensive forces in modern NBA history scored 17 points in 19 minutes after two seriously invasive surgeries in a span of eight months!

The Wizards can stay competitive without Arenas and hold down the fort, but there is no way they consistently can beat a playoff team without him. It's not just about his skill and production.

As a three-time all-star, Arenas has earned the respect of officials who do not yet give Butler, Jamison or anyone on the Wizards the same calls. That's more free throws awarded in the fourth quarter, the kind LeBron James shoots all the time.

Speaking of LeBron, the chances of Cleveland again facing Washington in the playoffs is starting to look more and more feasible. Wins over Detroit and Philadelphia would almost guarantee the No. 5 seed in the playoffs and, unless, the Cavaliers falter, another first-round trip to Cleveland.

The prospect of getting knocked out by LeBron three years in a row was the nightmare scenario for this franchise earlier this season, a clear and decisive reminder that the Wizards, irrespective of injury woes the past two seasons, still are treading water.

But Cleveland now is ready to be caught. The Cavaliers are hovering around .500 since the trade with Chicago that brought them an old Ben Wallace and an ancient Wally Szczerbiak.

Meanwhile, also lost in Arenas's absence was the development of all of the Wizards' role players.

Butler is a bona fide all-star, one of the top 15 players in the game on many nights now. Stevenson has fashioned himself into a serious outside threat and Mason is just such an Eddie Johnson- or Dell Curry-type sparkplug shooter off the bench.

Envisioning the Wizards knocking off the Celtics in a playoff series may seem like a stretch. The Celtics already have been made the favorites to win the NBA title by Las Vegas bookmakers, who like most league observers believe the Western Conference champion will emerge too battle-scarred to beat a Boston team that is supposed to cruise through the East.

But no other team has beaten the Celtics three times this season. When Jamison rose up and dunked hard after shaking Garnett in the third quarter -- surprising his own coaching staff -- and the building stood, it should make more people than just Jordan see the possibilities of such a grandiose feat.

"For some reason, we match up with them well, maybe better than anyone," Stevenson said. "It could be like one of those things from last season, the way Golden State just had Dallas's number."

Shuffling quietly to the team bus last night, that had to be Doc Rivers and the Celtics' fear.

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