By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 19, 2008
INDEPENDENCE, Ohio, April 18 -- DeShawn Stevenson wasn't the first person to call LeBron James "overrated." James said he has heard it on the road, he has even heard it at home.
No, not at Quicken Loans Arena, where the Cleveland Cavaliers will host the Washington Wizards in the first round of the playoffs for the third consecutive year. Or even in downtown Cleveland, where there is a new, huge "Witness" billboard with James, arms raised skyward, under a cloud of talcum powder.
James said he actually hears the word "overrated" in his own house, from his 3½-year-old son, LeBron Jr. "I just laugh at it," James said recently.
The Wizards, Stevenson and Gilbert Arenas, in particular, have directed a lot of trash talk in the direction of James and the Cavaliers, the defending Eastern Conference champions. On Friday, James acknowledged that he was truly caught off guard by Arenas writing on his blog that the Cavaliers were the team Washington wanted to play -- even more than Stevenson's comment after the Wizards defeated Cleveland, 101-99, on March 13.
"It wasn't as bad as it can get," James said, smiling. "I know Gilbert personally. What Gilbert is saying right now is not even where he can be."
James sounded irritated about having to answer questions about the Wizards "disrespecting our team." He later revealed that he is confused about the root of Stevenson's negative feelings toward him.
During the teams' final regular season matchup, Stevenson helped hound James into missing 13 of 22 shots and committing seven turnovers. He forced James into 1-for-6 shooting in the fourth quarter and defended him closely when James missed a potential game-winner from 27 feet. The players traded barbs the entire night, and Stevenson made his infamous statement while walking out of the Wizards' locker room after the game.
After the Wizards overtook the Toronto Raptors for the fifth seed in the East, Stevenson continued to talk about James, even mocking James's beard.
"I never said anything personal about him, anything about his family that would [tick] somebody off like that," James said. "I don't know what was said to him, but I've never said anything personal about anybody because I don't know what people go through outside of basketball. Now if I said something about his basketball game, maybe. About him personally? I don't go that far."
Although he initially dismissed Stevenson by comparing himself with hip-hop mogul Jay-Z and Stevenson to rapper Soulja Boy, James said his team wouldn't go back-and-forth verbally with the Wizards. "We don't have guys that do that," James said. "You're not going to see [Zydrunas Ilgauskas] out there talking trash, are you? It's not going to happen."
James, the NBA's leading scorer this season at 30 points per game, is entering his third postseason with career playoff averages of 27.3 points, 8.1 rebounds and 7.1 assists in 33 postseason games. But after leading the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals last season, James has a much different supporting cast after General Manager Danny Ferry made a trade deadline deal for Ben Wallace, Wally Szczerbiak, Joe Smith and Delonte West.
The Cavaliers finished the season 15-13, and James said he planned to reserve judgment on the team until after they achieve something together in the playoffs.
"I can't say we're better," James said. "We were a very good team last year. I can't take anything away from what we were last year. Last year was amazing, what we were able to accomplish."
James was then asked about his team's chances in the playoffs this season. "What do you want me to say? I don't feel good about it?" James said. "I'm the leader of this team. Of course I feel good about them. As long as I'm on the floor, we'll be all right. I mean that."
James said he is less than 100 percent because of a sore back that has kept him from practicing full contact the past two weeks. "I'll be fine," James said.
"To me, we have the best player on our team," Ilgauskas said. "If I was anybody else, I wouldn't want to play us because we're going to be a tough out. You've got to beat us four times. It's up to us. If we fail, we have nobody to blame but ourselves."
James's teammates questioned the Wizards reasons for giving James -- the man responsible for eliminating Washington the past two postseasons -- more motivation coming into this series.
"Put up or shut up," Wallace said. "Talking never wins any game. Not any game I played in."
Said Smith, "Once you cross these lines, your mouth can't get you out of trouble."
James said the Wizards couldn't say anything to change how he approaches the game.
"I'll be ready to play," James said. "I don't need opponents to motivate me. I motivate myself."