It's Closing Time in Cleveland
Wednesday, April 30, 2008
INDEPENDENCE, Ohio, April 29 -- Other than letting his friend, rapper and New Jersey Nets minority owner Jay-Z, make a disrespectful song directed at DeShawn Stevenson, LeBron James hasn't engaged in much trash talk with the Washington Wizards during this best-of-seven series.
His only comment that could be interpreted as bulletin board material came after his Cleveland Cavaliers took a 3-1 lead on Sunday. James was asked if the Wizards had any chance of coming back to win, and he answered, "No."
The Cavaliers are one victory from ending the Wizards' season for the third year in a row with Game 5 set for 6 p.m. Wednesday at Quicken Loans Arena. James, who is averaging 29.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 6.5 assists this series, is confident that it is not a matter of if but when Cleveland will eliminate the Wizards.
"It has nothing to do with the Wizards. They are a good team, but they've got to beat us three straight games, and I don't see that happening," James said on Tuesday. "I'm held accountable for our team's actions and I'm going to make sure our team maintains focus throughout this next game, and if it has to go beyond that. But I just don't see it happening."
James is 4-3 when the Cavs could close out an opponent the past two seasons, but he has never hesitated to eliminate the Wizards at the first opportunity, winning both times at Verizon Center. Two years ago, James tapped Gilbert Arenas on the foul line and told him he was going home if he missed the free throws. Arenas missed both and Damon Jones hit the game-winning jumper with 4.8 seconds left of a 114-113 overtime victory. Last year, James let Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Larry Hughes score 18 of the Cavaliers' final 20 points in a 97-90 victory.
The Cavaliers have some extra incentive to finish off Washington on Wednesday, with the winner of this series getting the winner of the Atlanta Hawks-Boston Celtics series, which is tied 2-2. "We have one more game to try to close these guys out and if not, get ready for a Game 6," James said. "We have to take care of our business and not worry about who's next after that."
The last time the Cavaliers held a 3-1 lead in the playoffs, they went home to Cleveland a year ago and had their worst postseason performance at Quicken Loans Arena in the James era, as the Nets beat them, 83-72.
James said he also wouldn't let the Wizards distract him with words or hard fouls. He nearly lost control of his temper in Game 1, when he was initially thrown off by the Wizards' physical play. He reacted to Andray Blatche slapping him in the mouth on a drive by popping Blatche with an elbow to the chin the next time they crossed paths. Although he wasn't penalized during the game, the league office assessed him with a flagrant-one foul before the next game.
Since then, James has kept his cool, even as the Wizards continued to knock him to the ground. Wizards center Brendan Haywood was ejected in Game 2 after sending him soaring into the photographers along the baseline. Haywood also mocked James for complaining about the physical contact and suggesting that Wizards are trying to hurt him.
"It happens in playground basketball, but it usually stops after the first hit because it can get really serious," James said. "It's part of basketball, I guess. It's happened more times than it should.
"I wasn't coming into the playoffs thinking I was going to be nick-free or not getting touched at all. But I'm built for it," James said. "It's obvious that [the Wizards] want to get me unfocused. That can't happen and it won't happen."
Stevenson has been getting under James's skin ever since he called him "overrated" in March. In the second quarter of Game 4, the two nearly came to blows after Stevenson picked up a flagrant foul when he clubbed James in the head with his elbow, knocking off James's headband and sending him sprawling.
James shot up and approached Stevenson but did nothing more than walk away after they were separated. He added that it would've escalated had the incident occurred when James was a kid playing at Elizabeth Park in Akron.
"I don't fight," James said. "That's so grade school. I stopped fighting a long time ago. I don't need to fight anymore. I can't afford to get kicked out of a game or say something that may stir something where I get fined. I mean too much to my team to allow guys to hard foul me or say something where I could get kicked out."
Cavaliers Coach Mike Brown praised James for keeping his composure through the physical play and the hostile environment in Washington, where James was greeted with boos every time he touched the ball and heard "overrated" on more than one occasion.
"It takes a special human being to keep your poise with all that has gone on," Brown said.
James was asked if the league and its officials have done a good job of policing this series. "I'm not the guy to ask," he said. "I'm just an employee of the NBA, not the boss."
So far, this series has included six technical fouls, three flagrant-one fouls, one flagrant-two foul, one ejection, a $25,000 fine for a "menacing gesture" by Stevenson and a hip-hop feud. "It's getting real commercial," James said. "Hopefully we can close them out so I can give you some more insight about what I think has been happening this series."