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Until Wizards Win, There Is No Rivalry

By Mike Wise
Sunday, April 20, 2008

CLEVELAND

Less than four minutes remained Saturday, and it was time to see what had changed, how the Wizards were going to flip the script and not make this "Groundhog Day." For two straight years, LeBron James had beaten them in late April, six games and counting, and now it was up to DeShawn Stevenson and Gilbert Arenas to back up their boasts, for the Wizards to either put away Cleveland on its home court or make a defensive stop at the end of game and hold on.

Antawn Jamison took the first shot, missing from 14 feet. He missed twice more in barely a minute -- deep, errant three-point attempts that came off the rim. There were 11 misfires by the Wizards in all at the end, some of them eyesores and most from the perimeter.

They gave up the lane when it mattered, too, surrendering a driving layup to LeBron with less than two minutes left in a tie game and then a runner in the key with less than a minute left, to make it very tough on themselves.

All the pre-series yakking -- Stevenson saying LeBron is "overrated," Arenas saying the Cavs would be out in the first round -- dissolved the moment the ball went up at Quicken Loans Arena. It's all hype.

They talked more junk on the floor. But this was about substance. The qualities that separate playoff contenders from teams that go on vacation in early May emerge in the waning moments of the fourth quarter, where the Wizards were inept. Again. And again.

You don't have to be a basketball purist to vent after what happened in this Game 1 of this Eastern Conference first-round series, to wonder how a team that attacked offensively most of the afternoon suddenly fell in love with its jump shot and let another spirited effort slip away.

But you do have to wonder when and if the Wizards are going to realize they have more weapons, more depth and too much talent to let one great player and a smattering of very marginal role players ruin Washington's postseason for the third year in a row.

In 2006, the last time the Wizards won a playoff game in Cleveland, they outplayed the Cavaliers for much of the series and were undone by LeBron's masterful clutch play at the end. Last season, they had a bona fide excuse, missing Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler and relying on 32 points per game from Jamison.

Now? I'm sorry. I don't care if these are the defending Eastern Conference champions or not. I don't care if Arenas, Butler, Jamison and their teammates are learning each other's games again after not having been on the court together for much of the season.

The trades made at midseason have not worked out well for Cleveland thus far; they're not the Cavs who dumped Detroit a year ago.

Ben Wallace, whose no-holds-barred game I fell in love with in 2004, is now old. The man is 33 in dog years.

Wally Szczerbiak, bless his heart, couldn't take -- or guard -- Gheorghe Muresan off the dribble. Ask Gheorghe. He'll tell you.

Joe Smith gives you energy, but not much else. Daniel Gibson is a nice spot-up shooter, but "Boobie" is no Dell Curry. He's not even Stephen Curry.

The Cavaliers have LeBron and Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who is skilled at 7 feet 3 and occasionally driven when he really feels like playing.

That roster is going to send you packing again? Uh-uh. Can't happen.

"We stopped attacking the basket," Jamison said, lamenting that fact that he and his teammates seemed to forget they had drawn enough fouls to spend the final 7 minutes 42 seconds of the game in the free throw bonus. "We settled for jumpers. I settled for three of them. I thought I had one, but I was leaning a little after that. No excuse. We should've gone inside."

For most of four quarters, Jamison was the best player on the floor. Not LeBron, who piggybacked the Cavs to the NBA Finals a year ago. Not Arenas, the NBA sixth man of the month, who was flat-out flammable in his first playoff appearance in two years, dropping in 12 points in six minutes and shaking anyone whom Cleveland assigned to guard him.

And there was something right about that, because Jamison was the player who carried the banner for the Wizards last season in the playoffs and has been the team's most consistent player, if not the league's most consistent player, for all of this season.

He rebounded, he shot well and he even picked up a technical foul, having a fellow Carolina player's back at the end of the first half. Brendan Haywood, who was very good at times yesterday, scuffled with LeBron, who felt as if the Wizard had prevented him from getting up at midcourt. He came up with an elbow, and Jamison darted across half court as if he were a heavyweight boxer's handler and all hell had broken out in the ring.

It was a good, early sign that the Wizards weren't afraid to scrap, to do what they had to do to not make this a repeat of last season and the season before.

But Washington can't feel good about its 2008 playoff debut. Bottom line: The Wizards have to win this year or else there is no genuine rivalry with Cleveland.

They have a rivalry like the Knicks and Bulls; when Michael Jordan played, the Bulls won every time. When LeBron James plays and does the things he did at the end of the game for Cleveland on Saturday, the Cavaliers have thus far won every time that truly mattered.

James had an unreal dunk off an alley-oop pass from Gibson in the first half, cocking his right arm all the way back -- until it appeared to almost come out of his shoulder -- before slamming the ball through.

The Q went wild with noise, howling more at the replay of the dunk than the actual live play.

Arenas was otherworldly, too, for a while, especially at the end of the first quarter, in which he launched a 30-something-foot shot that caught all nylon.

It took you back to 2006, dueling superstars, putting it into overdrive, giving the masses what they wanted.

But the ending was all too familiar. The first game does not make a series, but the Wizards would do themselves a big favor, emotionally and psychologically, by winning Game 2 and finding a way to rid themselves of this nettlesome and, thus far, unbeatable first-round foe.

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