By Michael Wilbon
Tuesday, April 22, 2008
The Washington Wizards were reminded, rather rudely Monday night, of the enormous difference between an all-star and a superstar.
The Wizards have three all-stars but put together they don't come close to equaling the one transcendent iconic player Cleveland has in LeBron James. Yes, in NBA math three can be less than one.
The Wizards left Cleveland with barely a whimper on Monday night, looking like chumps, like a lottery team instead of one with playoff aspirations. Nothing that transpired in Cleveland's humiliating 30-point Game 2 victory suggests that a change in venue, to Verizon Center for Thursday's Game 3, will make an enormous difference in the outcome of this series.
Antawn Jamison had a bad night. Caron Butler had a worse night. Gilbert Arenas had the worst night of all. He did absolutely nothing besides throw up a bunch of worthless jump shots. At least Brendan Haywood went out battling, though that may be costly beyond this night. When Washington's Andray Blatche was smashed in the head, the referees called a flagrant foul but the offending Cavalier, Anderson Varejao, stayed in the game. When Haywood threw a body block that knocked an airborne LeBron into photographer's row in the third quarter, Haywood was sent to the showers.
TNT's Reggie Miller, during the national telecast, asked rhetorically if the refs would have tossed Haywood had he fouled any other member of the Cavaliers. Indeed, it's the superstar double standard that has always ruled the NBA, especially in the playoffs. LeBron is 1,000 times more important in the world basketball order than Haywood. But before anybody gets carried away with talking about how the calls favor the biggest star, LeBron also proved for the second straight game that it's also true he's better than Butler, Jamison and Arenas combined. LeBron attacked the Wizards physically, played smarter and harder, and led his team to a 23-point bulge after three quarters that made the rest of the game useless.
Get this: LeBron, all by himself, outscored Washington's three all-stars 30-28. None of the three scored as many points as Wally Szczerbiak. None scored as many as Daniel Gibson. The Wizards ought to be ashamed of themselves to get into the playoffs and come up this small.
As great as LeBron is, the Cavaliers should never dominate the Wizards to such an extent in a playoff game. The Cavs aren't the Celtics or Lakers; they're not even as good as they were last year. Not close. Plus, the Wizards are supposed to be better than they were a year ago. Yet, last year's team, short Arenas and Butler, who were hurt, gave a much greater effort in all four of those games than they did in Game 2.
How dumb of me to have presumed on the eve of the series that three all-stars could eclipse one LeBron. Okay, the series isn't over yet, what with the Wizards getting the next two games at home. But they have to do a 180-degree spin-o-rama to change the momentum Cleveland has built, and nothing the Wizards did Monday night even hints at such a dramatic turnaround.
LeBron, even if he hadn't had 30 points, 12 assists and 9 rebounds, would have been effective because he drove his team with his force of personality and basketball intellect. Arenas, even when he's on fire shooting the ball, has no such personality in these playoff games.
Okay, his wrist was bothering him. Superstars have diversity in their games, and Arenas hasn't evolved to that point as a postseason player.
If this is the team he wanted, then why not play like it? Why not lead them like he wants a piece of them?
Instead, the Wizards did the worst thing imaginable: they backed down. It's like when the Miami Heat would say they wanted Michael Jordan, then lose 4-1.
At least in Game 1 the Wizards had stretches that raised hope for the postseason in the first place. At least they moved on offense and scrambled on defense right down the final two minutes of the game.
The effort the first half of Game 2 looked downright feeble. There was nothing whatsoever inspired about their play. They couldn't shoot straight, not even from the foul line and continued to jack up shots instead of looking inside. They allowed LeBron to do the worst thing possible, get his teammates involved. The fact that James had only 12 points in the 53-40 halftime lead detailed just how dreadful the Wizards were.
They let Szczerbiak, who has struggled since coming over in the big trade, get loose for open jumper after open jumper. Big Z, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, had his way inside with 12 points and nine rebounds in the first half, a good bit of it coming after Haywood was on the bench with two fouls.
The Wizards' last truly competitive stretch of the game came at the end of the first quarter when Cleveland Coach Mike Brown decided to rest LeBron. Down 27-22 before the break, the Wizards scored eight straight points to take a 30-27 lead.
Quickly, Brown put LeBron back into the game and just as quickly, it wasn't a game anymore. Ilgauskas scored, LeBron blocked an Antonio Daniels layup with his left hand, threw an assist pass to Varejao, stole the ball from Arenas, who tried to post him up, then forced Arenas into a three-point air ball. You get the picture. Cleveland went on a 25-9 run. No amount of lecturing or calling of timeouts could pull the Wizards back into it.
"They played with a lot more intensity, a lot more disciplined," Wizards Coach Eddie Jordan said afterward. "They beat us. We beat ourselves. Their coach kept them disciplined. And this coach couldn't keep his guys disciplined enough to keep this competitive. I did a horrible job of keeping these guys in an organized fashion, playing with intensity, discipline and organization. We'll see if we can play with a lot more intensity, discipline and intelligence once we get back to Washington."
Asked why this was the case, Jordan said he suspected some of his players were overly excited and didn't properly channel the emotions.
"We've talked about it for two days and still didn't do what we talked about," he said. "Only the guys who came in off the bench did that, and it showed."
Of LeBron's simply throttling his team, Jordan said: "Sometimes he looks like a man playing among boys. He controlled the game, took hold of it and ran with it. I know they changed their team [since last season], but they've got the same coaching staff and they've got the -- I say this [respectfully]-- the monster player and he's taking over the series, taking it over. He was a leader, a difference-maker."