By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 25, 2008
When things start going bad and playoff pressure mounts, most teams get serious, talk about fighting for their postseason lives and approach the next game with fierce determination.
After dropping the first two games of their first-round series with the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Washington Wizards got haircuts and shipped in a rapper.
When it did come time to play, however, the Wizards were plenty serious and it showed with a dominant 108-72 victory last night.
Before Game 3, all-star forward Caron Butler had his nickname, "Tough Juice," carved into the hair on the back of his head. DeShawn Stevenson and Andray Blatche showed up with modified Mohawks, and Stevenson invited rap star Soulja Boy to watch the game from a seat near the Washington bench.
The sold-out crowd at Verizon Center dutifully dressed in white and made the kind of noise that hasn't been heard in the building all season.
The 36-point final margin was the largest ever in the playoffs for both teams. Game 4 of the best-of-seven series is Sunday at Verizon Center.
Five Wizards scored in double figures, but the tone for the night was set by Butler and Stevenson, two players who personified the team's problems in Cleveland but burst out with spectacular efforts.
Butler, who managed nine field goals in the first two games, got things rolling with energetic play at both ends in the first half and finished with 17 points and four assists. Stevenson, who in the first two games made 5 of 16 shots and couldn't do much to slow LeBron James, connected on five three-pointers and scored 19 points.
"I saw the first shot go in," Stevenson said. "And with me, when I see that first shot go in, I feel comfortable and get into a groove."
The ease with which the Wizards cut through the Cavaliers reached a level of comical absurdity early in the fourth quarter when Stevenson made three-pointers over James on back-to-back possessions.
Moments before Stevenson made the first of the two long-range shots, Soulja Boy, who wore a Stevenson jersey, was shown on the arena's big screen as his hit song "Crank Dat" played and the crowd danced with him.
As he danced, Soulja Boy waved his hand in front of his face a la Stevenson.
The whole Stevenson-Soulja Boy connection began with Stevenson calling James "overrated" following a Wizards' victory over the Cavaliers on March 13. James answered by saying that a player of his stature responding to a player like Stevenson would be like rap legend Jay-Z responding to a one-hit wonder like Soulja Boy.
Last night belonged to Stevenson and Soulja Boy.
Even James, who finished with 22 points on 10-of-19 shooting with seven rebounds, had to smile when the crowd serenaded him with "overrated" while he attempted free throws late in the third quarter.
For the Wizards, the only damper on the night was the health of three-time all-star guard Gilbert Arenas, who started the game after coming off the bench in the first two contests. He suffered a bruised bone on his left knee in the first half and did not return.
Arenas, who posted two points and three assists in 10 minutes, was limping badly and is listed as day-to-day, but Coach Eddie Jordan hopes he can go in Game 4.
"He's got two days to sort of get his legs back under him and I think it's going to be okay for Sunday afternoon," Jordan said. "We'll see how he is [Friday]. He's going to get his therapy and his rehab and we'll see how he is."
After shooting 39 percent and scoring 86 points in the first two games, the Wizards shot 52.1 percent and easily broke the 100-point mark. Meantime, after playing so efficiently in their Game 2 blowout victory, the Cavaliers were a step slow and often sloppy.
Cleveland committed 19 turnovers in the first two games but finished with 23 last night, and the Wizards turned those mistakes into 30 points.
"They were the aggressors," Cleveland Coach Mike Brown said. "And in the first two games, I thought we were pretty aggressive. Tonight, they came out with the right mind-set, the crowd was terrific for them. They got energy and juice from the crowd and there were a lot of things evident about that."
The stunning turnaround from Monday's 30-point loss in Cleveland to last night's 36-point win at home would be inexplicable for most teams but not necessarily the Wizards, who lost 10 games by 20 points or more this season, but typically shook off such efforts and bounced back.
"It starts from the head coach and right on down through the captains," said Antawn Jamison, who finished with 15 points and seven rebounds. "We never sulk or think it's over with, we just find a way to get it done."
Wizards Notes: The victory snapped Cleveland's eight-game playoff winning streak over the Wizards and three-game playoff wining streak at Verizon Center. Former Wizard and former Cavalier Larry Hughes, who was traded from Cleveland to Chicago in February, attended the game.