Playing With a Vengeance
Saturday, April 19, 2008
Antawn Jamison walked out of the locker room after practice Thursday carrying a book titled "All Buts Stink! How to Live Your Best Life and Eliminate Excuses."
Though Jamison said the choice of reading material was purely coincidental, the subtitle could be the ideal slogan for the Washington Wizards as they get ready for what promises to be an intense first-round playoff series against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
After LeBron James and the Cavaliers sent the Wizards home in six games in 2006, the Wizards vowed that they would come back stronger and more experienced, but injuries to Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler left them short-handed when the teams met in another first-round series last spring and the Cavaliers cruised to a 4-0 sweep.
Now, as the Wizards tip off yet another playoff meeting with the Cavaliers, they feel they have the experience, talent and health to beat the Cavaliers and advance to the second round for the first time since the 2005 playoffs.
"This is it," said Jamison, who averaged 32 points in last season's series, but did not have nearly enough help with Arenas and Butler in street clothes. "The talk is over and there are no excuses now. I mean, this is what everything was geared up for and we have to make it work."
The Wizards, who split the season series with Cleveland 2-2 and won the last meeting 101-99 at Verizon Center on March 13, have certainly displayed no fear. Guard DeShawn Stevenson, who boldly called James "overrated" after the March 13 game, personifies that attitude.
"I thought they were kind of arrogant last year walking in our arena, knowing that we did not have our guys," Stevenson said. "This year, we have our guys and I feel pretty arrogant. They did it last year so why can't we do it this year? Last year didn't count because we didn't have everybody. Now they have their full team and we have our full team, so let's go at it."
With interest in this series building, it's worth revisiting what Arenas said back on May 5, 2006, shortly after the Cavaliers eliminated the Wizards with a 114-113 overtime victory in Game 6.
Arenas averaged 34 points in that series, but missed a potential game winning three-pointer in Game 3. Then, in Game 6, he had a chance to force a Game 7 with 15 seconds remaining.
"I had a chance to seal the game with two free throws and missed them both," Arenas said that night. "You live and you learn and that is something I can take into the summer and use as motivation. I will be in plenty of situations like that and will have plenty of opportunities to redeem myself."
Little did Arenas know that it would be nearly two years and two surgeries on his left knee before he'd get another crack at the Cavaliers, but his confidence is high.
"I'm an assassin," Arenas said yesterday. "I get buckets." Arenas will come off the bench in Game 1, though that role could change. "I haven't played in a long time, but my shot is still there. When I come off the bench, there's going to be some trouble."
Wizards players are not the only ones who believe they have a legitimate chance to win the series.
The Cavaliers are seen as vulnerable because General Manager Danny Ferry drastically altered the roster and chemistry with a February trade that sent out Larry Hughes, Drew Gooden and brought in Ben Wallace, Delonte West, Joe Smith and Wally Szczerbiak -- and because James is ailing
"I think they are really limping into the playoffs with LeBron having the sore back and Mike Brown trying to solidify his rotation," said TNT television analyst Reggie Miller during a conference call with reporters.
"This is going to be a very interesting matchup for Mike Brown and the Cavaliers. I would not be surprised if Washington, with Gilbert Arenas coming back along with Caron and Jamison, can beat Cleveland."
To do it, the Wizards will have to find a way to deal with James, who dominated them during the memorable 2006 series when three of Cleveland's four wins came by a single point.
In Game 3, James scored 14 of his 41 points in the fourth quarter and scored the game winner when he drove by Antonio Daniels and banked in a runner over then-Wizard Michael Ruffin with 5.7 seconds remaining.
At the end of Game 5, the Wizards tried to force James to the baseline into a trap but he slipped past Jamison before making a layup over Ruffin and Brendan Haywood with 0.9 of a second remaining.
And finally, in the closing seconds of the decisive Game 6, the Wizards double-teamed James but he passed to Hughes who then passed to Damon Jones, who made the series-clinching shot from the corner with 4.8 seconds remaining.
On the final play of the March 13 game, Jordan elected to single-cover James with Stevenson, and James was short on a three-point attempt at the buzzer.
How Jordan chooses to defend James in late-game situations and how the Wizards execute could determine the outcome of the series.
"We've been burned all kinds of ways," Jordan said. "We've doubled him and Damon Jones comes off the bench after sitting 47 minutes and 50 seconds and hits a shot to win the series. We've guarded him one-on-one and he gets to the basket. We've pushed him baseline and he gets to the basket. I've seen him destroy one of the best defensive teams in the league in the playoffs last year [Detroit] by scoring 24 points in the last quarter. . . . Sometimes you just have to hope that the gods are with you and he misses by a hair at the front rim, sort of like he did the last time we played them."