By Mike Wise
Thursday, April 10, 2008
This was the game that makes the Wizards viable as a playoff team. Holding off the squad with the NBA's best record -- and beating the Boston Celtics three out of four times this season -- enables Eddie Jordan to finally see the possibilities.
For just the second time this calendar year, Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler were on the floor together, where they stared down Boston's Big Three and won a game last night that had all the makings of a second-round playoff series, replete with big stars and what should be humongous television ratings.
Boston already had wrapped up home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. But Boston Coach Doc Rivers remembered what happened to Dallas last season, the way his friend Avery Johnson rested Dirk Nowitzki and the stars of the 67-win Mavericks, who lost their mojo and, shockingly, their first-round series to Golden State.
That's why Rivers brought back Kevin Garnett, who played 31 minutes, late in the game, why Ray Allen and Paul Pierce each played 37 minutes. "Even from afar," Rivers said before the game, the Warriors' stunner made coaches reevaluate how to prepare the No. 1 contender for a championship run.
So Garnett squawked at whoever would listen. Pierce talked junk, too, trying to crawl beneath the skin of Butler the way Butler got in his head in their previous meetings. Not one of the Wizards paid them mind.
Butler instead fired a warning shot afterward when asked about a potential playoff matchup with Pierce: "It'll go down in the second round," he said. "You watch. We find a way to get there, then you'll see a show."
Afterward, Rivers admitted: "They play great against us, no doubt about it. If they were to go against us in the playoff they should have great confidence."
Arenas left pretty trailing passes for teammates and buried a late jump shot. DeShawn Stevenson closed out Boston with a pair of deep three-pointers and a steal, and when it was done, a very important 109-95 win for Washington's confidence, more than 20,000 gave the Wizards the standing ovation they richly deserved.
When Roger Mason Jr. scooted to his left and ducked under the defense with 6 minutes 24 seconds left, releasing a three-pointer that severely hurt the Celtics' comeback hopes, a finally healthy Washington team stood two games back of Cleveland in the East with four games to play.
I don't want to hear that Boston had nothing to play for last night. There is more than a decent chance that the Celtics could encounter the Wizards in the second round. And if this is the last time these teams see each other, it was Washington that left a strong impression that it could go six, if not seven games with the vaunted Celtics.
For one, the Wizards match up about as well as any team with Boston. For some reason, Brendan Haywood's elongated frame gives Garnett fits. Last night, he had 12 points and six rebounds in 27 minutes and made sure Garnett did not rule the Wizards inside.
As savvy a scorer as Pierce is, he's streaky next to Butler, who is about as consistent as small forwards come. Pierce started quickly, dropping in four straight three-pointers to start the game, and outplayed Butler numbers-wise. But at this point in their careers, I like Butler's tough-mindedness over a two-week stretch.
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.