Round 3 To Wizards

The Washington Post's Michael Lee looks at the Wizards's first playoff game matchup against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Video by Comcast SportsNet
By Michael Wilbon
Friday, April 18, 2008

The Boston Celtics may have the best record in the NBA and may prove over the next two months to be the league's best team. The Detroit Pistons might have the talent and the depth to add a championship ring to the one they won four years ago. But there's only one story line with sizzle in the first round of the Eastern Conference and it involves neither the Celtics nor Pistons.

The series to watch, and listen to, is Washington vs. Cleveland, which already has name-calling and trash-talking -- and it hasn't even begun. And if that weren't enough, the most charismatic figure in the game today, NBA analyst Charles Barkley, has called the Wizards "the dumbest team in the history of civilization" for calling out LeBron James.

In short, the Wizards and Cavaliers have become two teams that plain don't like each other . . . and seem on the verge of detesting each other. The Cavaliers are tired of Gilbert Arenas and now DeShawn Stevenson. The Wizards (at least one of 'em) think James is overrated. The Cavaliers took the Wizards' lunch money in an entertaining six-game series two years ago, making Agent Zero in particular look like he couldn't take the heat when he missed free throws at the end of Game 6. Last year, the Cavaliers took advantage of a Wizards team depleted by injuries on the way to the NBA Finals.

So here we are, on the eve of a third consecutive playoff meeting, and the fairly healthy Wizards are bent on vengeance and confident they'll get it. A week ago, Arenas said: "I think everybody wants Cleveland in that first round. They've been a .500 team since they made that trade and everybody wants a chance at that matchup . . ." Truth is, Arenas said what every player in the Eastern Conference believes. The Cavaliers are 15 -13 since trading Larry Hughes and Drew Gooden and acquiring Ben Wallace, Joe Smith, Wally Szczerbiak and Delonte West. In addition, Daniel Gibson and Zydrunas Ilgauskas have been injured, and now Sasha Pavlovic is going to miss the series with a sprained ankle. Back spasms have been killing Wallace, who hasn't had a double-digit rebound game since March 16 and whose point totals for his last eight games are 5, 4, 2, 0, 1, 1, 6 and 0. And back spasms seem to be contagious, since James has had them recently as well.

The Cavaliers have had no prolonged stretch when they've played like the team that beat the Pistons in the conference finals last season to reach the NBA Finals.

Arenas was just as honest when he said, "We want Cleveland for our own reasons. We don't think they can beat us in the playoffs three straight years. It's hard to beat a team three straight. We want to try our luck."

Again, Arenas ought to feel that way, and so should every one of his teammates. James embarrassed them two years ago, winning three of the four games in that series virtually by himself. The Wizards are a better team than they were two years ago, more experienced. They ought to want Cleveland in the same way the Suns should want the Spurs.

Of course, that's not why Barkley called the Wizards "dumb." He called 'em dumb because they said what was on their minds so openly, so brazenly, appearing in the process to disrespect James. And it's not like the Wizards have any postseason pedigree. They're not the Pistons. And it's not like James is Tracy McGrady and hasn't been out of the first round. He carried a team on his back to the NBA Finals last season.

I understand why, at the end of a game and in the heat of the moment after stopping James on a game-winning shot attempt, Stevenson called him "overrated." Happens all the time and in every sport. Sometimes it's a whisper, sometimes it's a shout. Stevenson has been feeling good about his defense, particularly on some of the game's stars he's asked to guard night after night.

But . . .

There's nothing overrated about James. Nothing. And the greatest players (see M. Jordan) take great umbrage at these slights, real or perceived. James didn't get to be who he is by backing down from a challenge.

Barkley thinks rattling James before a series is plain dumb, and there are plenty of players who would agree with him.

Stevenson shot back on Wednesday that Barkley should "chill out and worry about other things. Don't worry about the Washington Wizards. . . . Are we really going to listen to a guy who said Yao Ming would not be an all-star in this league? . . . So who cares what he has to say?"

Nobody will care if the Wizards win. And they ought to. Forget the seeding (Cavs are 4, Wizards 5) and Cleveland's home-court advantage. The Wizards should feel as good as they apparently do about their chances.

Yes, one great player can disproportionately affect the outcome of a playoff series in basketball. James did it last year against Detroit. Thing is, the Wizards have three players who are recent or current all-stars: Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler. Stevenson has been a very nice role player all season, as has Antonio Daniels. The bench is deep enough with Darius Songaila and Andray Blatche and Roger Mason Jr. Brendan Haywood appears up to the task of negating whatever contribution Ilgauskas makes.

And while Arenas has been blogging and Stevenson has been talking, the fact is the Wizards otherwise simply are not a mouthy team. Butler, Jamison and Daniels are anything but -- meaning it's unlikely the whole team is wildly distracted by Arenas and Stevenson. It didn't seem like Coach Eddie Jordan was anything more than mildly annoyed when he said, " . . . Let's toss it up and see if you can walk the walk like you talk the talk."

It's a very wisely crafted sentence the coach aimed at Arenas and Stevenson, a more diplomatic way of saying: "Put up or shut up."

As great as James is, there's every reason, presuming relative health (particularly Butler's), that the Wizards should win this series. Barkley's probably going to call me dumb, too, but from here the Wizards look to have the better team, and what's just as important is they're playing better at the right time. If the Wizards allow James and a team of players he's barely familiar with to tap dance all over their heads again, then they'll have to stop blogging and talking long enough, however painful it would be, to tip their hats in the direction of Mr. James -- and Mr. Barkley.

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