By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 24, 2008
LeBron James is expecting to face a motivated opponent and be confronted by a raucous crowd when his Cleveland Cavaliers face the Washington Wizards in Game 3 of the first-round playoff series tonight at Verizon Center.
Largely because of James, who has been brilliant while averaging 31 points, 8 assists and 7 rebounds, the Cavaliers lead the best-of-seven series 2-0 and are threatening to sweep the Wizards out of the playoffs for the second straight season.
"We know it's going to be electrifying," James said. "It's going to be a hostile environment. We have to able to, if they hit us with a punch, we counter with a punch."
Realizing that his words may have conveyed the wrong message in a series that has featured four technical fouls, two flagrant fouls and one ejection, James paused and smiled.
"Not literally," he continued. "Let me change my words. If they make a few shots, just counter their attack and move on."
The Wizards' promotions department is asking fans to attend tonight's game dressed in white to create "White Out" conditions, and several players have talked about how they are looking forward to receiving a friendly reception after being treated rudely by energetic crowds at Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena.
However, simply pulling on the home uniforms and running onto a familiar court won't fix everything that went wrong in the first two games, particularly Game 2 when the Wizards fell apart in the second quarter and never recovered as the Cavaliers cruised to a 30-point victory.
The Wizards are shooting 39 percent and haven't been able to get a handle on James, who is shooting 55.3 percent in this series and has led the Cavaliers to eight consecutive playoff victories over the Wizards.
Three of those wins have come at Verizon Center.
"You have to earn it," Coach Eddie Jordan said about getting Wizards fans excited tonight. "You've got to get the crowd believing in you. You've got to get the crowd to say, 'Hey, they're playing good basketball, they're rebounding well and they're defending well.' And then they'll come along with you, and that's when you'll get that sixth-man feel and that ride from them. But, if your fans see you breaking down and you're playing a game like [Monday night], heck, they might cheer for Cleveland."
Given the level of hostility that has built up between fans of the teams during the last three seasons, that likely won't happen. But Wizards fans have every right to expect more from their team.
Beginning with DeShawn Stevenson's bold statement that James was "overrated" following a win over the Cavaliers at Verizon Center on March 13 and continuing with a blog entry Gilbert Arenas wrote in which he practically begged for a first-round matchup with the Cavaliers, the Wizards have displayed a level of cockiness that has not been backed up by performance.
Stevenson, who shot 19.6 percent in last year's Cleveland sweep, hasn't been able to slow James as a defender and has totaled 15 points on 5-of-16 shooting in the first two games. Arenas got hot for a stretch of Game 1 but missed all four of his fourth-quarter shots in the Wizards' 93-86 loss. He finished with seven points on 2-of-10 shooting in Game 2.
Arenas is still limited by his surgically repaired left knee and lacks the speed he displayed before the injury, but it's a little more difficult to explain why all-star forward Caron Butler hasn't been more of a factor.
In two games, Butler has scored 26 points on 9-of-23 shooting and hasn't looked anything like the player who helped carry the Wizards earlier in the season when Arenas was out.
Butler, the only player in the NBA this season to average at least 20 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals, missed the final three games of the regular season with a bruised right knee and may still be trying to get back into a rhythm.
Making matters worse, the Cavaliers successfully took all-star Antawn Jamison out of Game 2 by rotating several defenders, including former Maryland star Joe Smith, on him throughout the game. In the second half, Jamison managed only two shot attempts in just over 14 minutes.
As a result, Washington's "big three" hasn't added up to Cleveland's one James.
Still, Jamison believes the Wizards can improve in several areas and salvage something from this series before it turns into another romp for James and the Cavaliers.
"Like I said before, they did what they were supposed to do winning two games at home," Jamison said. "The one disappointing thing about it is the fashion in which we lost on Monday. Not playing with discipline offensively, defensively letting them get anything they wanted and just letting everything go downhill. We know what to expect [tonight]. We know how the fans are going to react and we know how important this game is. You get Game 3 and you've got a series and then you can concentrate on Game 4."
Staff writer Michael Lee contributed to this report from Independence, Ohio.