For One Night, Three Times Better

Go behind-the-scenes at Verizon Center with The Washington Post's Mike Wise for Game 3 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. Video by Atkinson & Co.
By Michael Wilbon
Friday, April 25, 2008

This is the night the Washington Wizards have been waiting two years for, ever since LeBron James talked Gilbert Arenas out of a critical free throw and into summer vacation back in that Game 6, series-ending loss 24 months ago. This is the performance folks have been waiting to see the Wizards produce, one in which all-stars play like it and decide they're not going to be humiliated by one great player, even if that great player is LeBron James.

Most of the things that could go right did on a night when Caron Butler played with the rage that helped make him an all-star in the first place, when Roger Mason Jr. and DeShawn Stevenson came out firing like marksmen, and when a sustained defensive effort resulted in the opponent shooting less than 40 percent.

The Wizards, after their coach climbed in their heads for two days after that ugly Game 2 loss in Cleveland, delivered a record-setting 108-72 smackdown last night. They played with equal parts purpose, passion and precision. The Wizards were so much the better team in Game 3 that even LeBron had to laugh when Verizon Center fans began chanting "Overrated! Overrated!" when he stood at the foul line late in the third quarter.

Eddie Jordan has to be credited for taking a chance. He didn't just make the usual playoff adjustments coaches make. He ripped his players apart. "Tore them down and built them back up, which is sort of risky this time of year," Jordan admitted afterward. "I read them the riot act. Showed all the things they did wrong. And the next two days we told them how great they were."

And it worked. For one night. Even a 36-point rout still counts for one victory. Asked how he expects James to respond after hearing for three straight days how badly his team got kicked, Jordan said, "As soon as the crowd chanted 'Overrated,' he jumped to the moon to get a dunk."

So much came together in Game 3. The Wizards had two Mohawks (Stevenson and Andre Blatche), one rapper (Soulja Boy) and 20,000 people dressed in white T-shirts, a rip-off from Miami's "white-out" of two years ago but a nonetheless effective way of making the Wizards feel they had a real home-court advantage. The crowd was so, well, Capitals-like, Jordan issued a plea for similar behavior in Sunday's Game 4.

"Go to church for half a sermon," he said, "then come on."

Divine help won't be turned away either, not with Gilbert Arenas on the bench for all but 10 minutes of Game 3 with a bruised left knee.

This is the third time we've been down this road in the last 12 months. It's the same left knee that Arenas injured just before the playoffs last year and re-injured in November after only eight games. This was only his eighth game back after missing 69. And now, you can't help but wonder if Arenas can play a major role again in this series.

The Wizards say Arenas is "day-to-day" and he does have today and tomorrow to rehab before Game 4. Still, Arenas couldn't even push off his left leg enough to shoot after first re-injuring it in the first quarter. He came back out, of course, and worked to set up his teammates, which is why he had those three assists in 10 minutes. But now there's the possibility he's going to be sitting on the bench when this series goes back to Cleveland next week.

The question now, of course, is whether the Wizards can beat Cleveland again Sunday, by any margin, without Arenas. And beyond that, can the Wizards win a series without him, with their singles hitters doing all the damage if necessary. The Wizards' take, after such a decisive win, was of course positive. Jordan said his players said to themselves collectively when Arenas limped off the court: "We can be a good ball club without Gil. This is how we did it. It's sort of a microcosm of how the season went."

That's the latest intrigue of the most drama-charged series in the Eastern Conference. Whatever the first three games have lacked in artistry, there's been plenty of good theater.

The Capitals started this whole one-color blitz for games at Verizon Center, which is done in many NHL and NBA arenas these days. But the Wizards one-upped the Cappies in Game 3, what with the identifiable stars in the house. Georgetown's Roy Hibbert was the tallest. Colin Powell was the most powerful. And somewhere in between were Kevin Durant and Larry Hughes, and, yes, Soulja Boy dancing in the aisles while Stevenson buried a couple of his five three-pointers.

It was Cavaliers Coach Mike Brown who said: "They came out with the right mind-set. At halftime they had outscored us 30-12 on points in the paint. They had 30 points off our bad turnovers. Their guys were getting up in our chests and being very aggressive."

The most important thing the Wizards did -- and it was even more important than the physical contributions -- was locking in mentally on the task of beating a team with a great player who had just embarrassed them. "We didn't get distracted," Jordan said, "by referees' calls or hard fouls. We stayed focused and disciplined."

Jordan was beyond pleased about crisp rotations on defense, proper spacing between defenders, fighting through screens and not taking the easy way out.

The Wizards did the only thing a professional team can do after suffering an athletic indignity. They came out swinging. For one night, they acted like they were LeBron's peers, not props for one of his levitation dunk-a-thons. As a result, a series broke out here, for at least two more games and, if we're lucky, three or four more.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company