By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 27, 2008
Brendan Haywood didn't make much of an impact in last year's loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers in a first-round playoff series. And when the Wizards were sent home for the summer with a home loss in Game 4, Haywood removed the nameplate from his locker and walked out of Verizon Center for what he thought might be the last time.
It was hard to imagine then, but one year later, Haywood is playing the most consistent basketball of his career, and the Wizards, who trail the Cavaliers 2-1 in the best-of-seven series, are thankful that he's still in Washington.
Game 4 is this afternoon at Verizon Center, and if the Wizards are able to even the series, Haywood will probably play a major role.
"He's really just leapfrogged his first six years in one season and just sort of taken a huge leap," Wizards Coach Eddie Jordan said. "He's just been the guy for us, being our only center. He's always said that if he got consistent minutes, he'd perform, and he's done it. He's walked the walk, and he's been great for us all year."
Haywood is averaging a career playoff-high 13 points and 6.3 rebounds -- yesterday he joked that he'd have more if Antawn Jamison wasn't "always stealing my rebounds" -- and his defense on Cleveland center Zydrunas Ilgauskas was a major factor in keeping the Wizards close in a Game 1 loss and in their 108-72 victory in Game 3 on Thursday night.
In last year's series, a Cavaliers sweep, Etan Thomas started at center, and Haywood averaged 4.3 points and 1.7 rebounds in 11.3 minutes. Haywood didn't get off the bench in Game 4.
Thomas has been out all season after undergoing heart surgery during training camp, leaving Haywood as the team's only true center. It's a challenge Haywood has embraced.
He averaged career highs of 10.6 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.7 blocks and drastically improved at the free throw line, where he connected on 73.5 percent of his attempts after shooting 54.8 percent last season.
Haywood credits an increase in playing time, work he's done with shooting coach Dave Hopla and a meeting he had with Jordan and assistant coach Randy Ayers at his North Carolina home before training camp as reasons for his improved play.
"At the end of the day, we both wanted the same thing," Haywood said. "Coach wanted somebody to be effective on the inside, and I wanted to be that basketball player for this team. I think we've got both this year. I've had a pretty good season, and we've had an inside presence."
Haywood is playing with a higher level of confidence than he displayed in his first six seasons.
He's always had an effective right hand jump hook and a decent turnaround jump shot, but this season Haywood has been more aggressive in attacking the rim with drop steps and other moves that lead to high-percentage shots and draw fouls.
The Wizards led by 17 points early in the third quarter Thursday night when Haywood received a pass in the post where he was defended tightly by the 7-foot-3 Ilgauskas. Instead of fading away from contact by attempting a jump hook or some other finesse move, Haywood spun and aggressively leaned into Ilgauskas, drawing a foul.
Haywood calmly stepped to the free throw line and drained both shots to keep the Wizards rolling.
"When you think something good is going to happen at the free throw line, you definitely play more aggressive," Haywood said. "I know I look for more contact now because I feel confident that when I go up there, I'm going to hit two."
Perhaps the most surprising development in this series is the way Haywood is suddenly being perceived as an enforcer.
His hard foul on LeBron James in Game 2 -- Haywood was assessed a flagrant 2 foul and ejected from the game -- and physical overall play have made him a villain in Cleveland but no doubt pleasantly surprised Wizards fans who have been critical of him for playing soft in the past.
"I don't really feed into that," Haywood said. "The way people view you changes with the wind. I know what kind of person I am, and I know that I'm not some kind of tough guy going out there to hurt people. It's funny how one foul can change the complexion of how people view you. Now, I'm just some guy running around fouling people hard, but that's not what I'm about. I don't even think that's good basketball."
Jordan appreciates Haywood's aggressive approach and credits him with helping the Wizards drastically improve at the defensive end of the court this season. After giving up 104.9 points per game last season, the Wizards allowed 99.2 points this season.
"He sustained his efforts and he's sustained his effectiveness as opposed to the last few years when he would play, I thought, really well early in the season and then become more spotty as the season went along," Jordan said. "He's been very consistent, probably been our most consistent player, and our success has been based on a lot of what our two best defenders have done. DeShawn [Stevenson] and Brendan have given a great defensive effort for us."
Jordan has always been impressed with Haywood's high basketball IQ and thinks that it wouldn't be out of the realm of possibility for Haywood to become an effective coach someday.
"Coach Haywood?" Jordan asked. "You never know how coaches come out, man. I mean, Rod Strickland is a coach somewhere. I love Rod, but I never thought he'd be a coach. Coaches tend to pop out from anywhere so why not?"