By Mike Wise
Thursday, May 1, 2008
From the visitors' locker room came a chant, impromptu, rumbling beneath the Quicken Loans Arena stands, growing louder with each refrain.
"TOUGH JUICE! TOUGH JUICE! TOUGH JUICE!"
Caron Butler's teammates kept bounding up and down without him, chanting the nickname bestowed upon the Wizards' all-star three years ago by his coach, Eddie Jordan, who had grown tired of coaching soft players who couldn't finish games.
When Butler was finished with his TNT interview on Wednesday night -- when he was finished stealing Game 5 from LeBron James, hitting that rugged bank shot in traffic that rolled in with 3.9 seconds left and sucked every drop of enthusiasm out of the Q -- he ran down an almost-empty corridor.
After the most implausible victory of this Wizards era, he flexed his pectorals and screamed:
"D.C., STAND UP!! D.C., STAND UP!!"
One stubborn soul brought them home for Game 6, one franchise-player-in-waiting who on Tuesday afternoon, before the team boarded a flight to leave, hugged Abe Pollin, the team's 84-year-old ailing patriarch, after Butler and his teammates were asked to reward the owner with a victory.
"This was for Mr. Pollin," Butler said, moments after the Wizards had somehow erased a five-point Cleveland lead with 65 seconds left, winning on the Cavaliers' floor for the first time in two years. He scored 32 points, grabbed nine rebounds, had five assists and one of the zaniest, most improvisational shots in the first half -- catching his own ricocheted attempt and throwing up a running 14-foot hook that amazingly swished through. He played all but three minutes of what was sure to be Washington's last game of the season.
Until Caron outplayed LeBron, until the Wizards somehow extended their expiration date past April for the first time in two years.
"I didn't want my season to end like that and C.B. wouldn't let it end," Brendan Haywood said. "Caron was unbelievable. I've never seem him that intense. He wouldn't let us lose."
The shot with less than four seconds remaining was so clutch, easily the signature moment of Butler's career, on a night when he could not miss when it mattered. But it's the gamesmanship that followed, the moxie to saunter up to James before the game's final play, smiling and jawing at the same time.
"Let's make the series interesting," he said, as LeBron laughed.
"Let's take it back to D.C."
Shaken or not, LeBron missed a point-blank layup. The Wizards looked around, stunned that they had not heard a whistle or a deafening roar. After a few seconds of disbelief, they began jumping in each other's arms, in utter shock that they had beaten the Cavaliers to win their second game of a series they gave no prior inclination to extend past five games.
"I had to get him back for what he did to Gilbert a couple of years ago," Butler said, referring to James toying with Gilbert Arenas's mind moments before he missed two free throws that helped cost Washington the series in 2006. "Just had to."
Daniel Gibson bemoaned the loss, saying, "We let one slip away."
Now you now how Washington feels, Boobie.
Jordan always liked his players, but for most of the past four years he often lamented the lack of stone-cold competitors on his team, players with the guts and gumption to seize an elimination playoff game on the road against an NBA deity like James and the defending Eastern Conference champions. Hence, the nickname "Tough Juice" for Butler, the idea that something extra was coursing through his veins that Jordan wanted his players to have.
Let's be clear. The Wizards had played this game 100 times before, and this series, it seems, 1,000 times now. Losing to LeBron, not making it to May again, was becoming their bad ending -- on DVD. They were like that clueless couple that kept renting "Titanic," thinking the boat wouldn't sink this time.
And all the late-game collapses seemed to be their undoing again. This year it almost felt more maddening because there was a real feeling that they had the mojo going in -- and Cleveland, hamstrung by a midseason trade, didn't -- to finally advance past the Cavaliers.
All the usual suspects at the end of the game were in place. Bad shot selection. Some bit-part player in the drama, left alone in the corner. Gibson or Delonte West or, heaven forbid, Damon Jones, cruelly alone with the basketball in their hands and the rim in their sight, misplaced like a set of car keys.
LeBron lowering his shoulder, doing the Patrick Ewing bunny-hop till he either gets to the goal or hears a whistle. And finally that inexorable march toward the offseason, where more questions awaited the players and management.
Add Arenas's knee injury to the mix -- the fact that he shut it down for the season before Game 5 -- and everything was shaping up for another disappointing defeat here.
By necessity, Butler became Washington's best player this season, a ruthless veteran who tore up the league the first half of the season en route to his second all-star selection.
The only quality that trumped his skill was his will. In playground vernacular, he had plenty of "dog," a desire to get to the basket that transcended all but a few NBA players' desire.
But a torn labrum in his left hip in late January sidelined him for more than 20 games. And as much as he tried to rehabilitate the injury and get back fast, he never completely got his legs under his jump shot. He never had the same unbridled explosiveness that shook Paul Pierce and rattled Joe Johnson.
The most underreported story of this series has been the lingering effect of his injury and how adversely that had come to hurt the Wizards.
Yet when the season appeared over, when another loss against LeBron looked certain, he found something inside of him to push this series back to the District, back to D.C., just as he told his all-star counterpart in those closing seconds.
"TOUGH JUICE! TOUGH JUICE!"
They kept chanting Caron Butler's name as he rumbled down the corridor, finally embracing him as he entered the locker room, on what would not be the last night of the Wizards' season after all.