By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 1, 2008
CLEVELAND, April 30 -- With their season hanging in the balance on Wednesday night and yet another first-round playoff exit awaiting them at the hands of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Washington Wizards turned to the man called "Tough Juice."
All-star forward Caron Butler capped a spectacular effort by driving around James and banking in a tough running shot over James and Ben Wallace to give the Wizards a one-point lead with 3.9 seconds remaining.
The Cavaliers called a timeout and, to the surprise of no one, set up a play for James, who drove around DeShawn Stevenson and missed a driving layup as time expired, shocking a sellout crowd at Quicken Loans Arena into silence and sending the Wizards back to Washington with an 88-87 victory.
The Cavaliers lead the best-of-seven series, 3-2. Game 6 is Friday night at Verizon Center.
Butler finished with 32 points on 11-of-22 shooting, with nine rebounds and five assists, and took turns with Stevenson and Antonio Daniels defending James throughout the game. He dedicated the victory to ailing owner Abe Pollin, who sent the team off on Tuesday with an inspirational message: "Win one for me."
Things didn't look good when the Wizards trailed by five with 1 minute 47 seconds remaining, but Cleveland went scoreless on its final four possessions and the Wizards went ahead on a layup by Butler, two free throws by Daniels and, finally, Butler's game-winner.
"My back was against the wall, our back was against the wall, and the man who made it all possible and brought this team together wanted us to go out and get one for him and that's what we did," said Butler, who averaged 15.5 points in the first four games. "That meant a lot. We wanted to come out hard, come out aggressive and play with everything we had."
At the end of Sunday's 100-97 home loss in Game 4, Coach Eddie Jordan called a play for Gilbert Arenas and Arenas missed a contested three-pointer at the buzzer. Afterward, Jordan said he considered using Arenas as a decoy and instead running a play involving Butler and Antawn Jamison, the team's resident all-stars.
On Wednesday night, with Arenas sitting on the bench in street clothes with a sore left knee that will keep him out for the remainder of the playoffs, Jordan had no choice.
Butler inbounded to Jamison, who held the ball for a second before passing it back to Butler. After reading the defense, Butler put his head down and drove hard to his right past James before releasing a right-handed shot that cleared James and Wallace before going in.
"I'm an honest man and I kept my promise," Jordan said. "It went to Antawn first and it's his decision whether to keep it. He sort of shuffled it to Caron after Caron made the cut, and then Caron made a terrific drive that I thought he got bumped on, but that's okay, we can live with that. So that was the kind of play I thought about calling the other day and it worked out because Caron made the play."
But the game wasn't over.
James has beaten the Wizards five times in the playoffs by either making a go-ahead score or by making a pass that led to a go-ahead score, so the entire Wizards bench was up and watching intently as he made his drive at the end.
James, who finished with 34 points, 10 rebounds and 7 assists, appeared to get off a decent shot, but the ball rattled in and popped out.
"Of course I thought it was going in," James said. "I wanted to be aggressive and lay it off the backboard. It just didn't fall."
Jordan fully expected another result.
"We just got a miss for the first time since who knows," Jordan said before rattling off the names of Cavaliers who have crushed the Wizards by making big shots in the playoffs. "It's a Sasha Pavlovic make. A Delonte West make. It's Daniel Gibson making a shot. A Damon Jones shot. Every game it seems we lose. We finally got a miss."
Before James received the inbounds pass, Butler walked up to him and delivered a message.
"I just told him to make the season interesting," Butler said. "Let's take it back to D.C. And he started laughing. You know, I had to get him back for what he did to Gilbert a couple of years ago at the foul line."
Butler was referencing Game 6 of the 2006 series, when James approached Arenas before Arenas attempted two free throws and said, "If you miss both of those free throws, the game is over."
Arenas missed, and the Cavaliers went on to win when Damon Jones made a series-clinching jump shot from the corner on a play that began with James.
On Wednesday night, the Wizards prevailed, snapping a five-game playoff losing streak in Cleveland and ensuring at least one more game in what has been a wild season.
In a series that has featured flagrant fouls, plenty of trash-talking and even warring rappers, the Wizards have been portrayed in some circles as a team filled with nothing more than cocky players who talk plenty but do little walking.
Butler said he wants the basketball-watching world to take another look.
"Don't judge this team from comments," Butler said. "LeBron made a statement: 'These guys are talkers.' But unless you hear something from the captains, which would be myself and Antawn, don't label that as the team. I'm the voice of this team and Antawn is the spiritual and emotional leader, so unless you hear it from one of us, keep it moving."