By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, May 1, 2008
Not everybody on the Wizards is a talker. Caron Butler is a doer. Antawn Jamison, even on a bad shooting night, is a doer. Facing elimination on the road, with Gilbert Arenas sitting on the bench, Butler and Jamison took control of the team before the game in the locker room. They told their teammates, essentially, to shut up and play.
Wonder of wonders, the Wizards did just that on Wednesday night. Mouths shut for the most part, the Wizards protected the ball, made smart decisions, and played with more poise over the final two minutes to pull out what most of us would call an improbable Game 5 victory over the Cavaliers.
"All the talk, all the silliness had gotten so much attention, it was time to just play ball," Jamison said. "We were down 3-1, on the brink of elimination, I just told them that all this talking was not making them look bad, it was making us look bad. We're a veteran team and it was time for us to start acting like it."
Asked if he and Butler were annoyed with DeShawn Stevenson and Gilbert Arenas doing so much talking in the time leading up to the series and early in the series, Jamison said it was a fair way to depict how the two felt. "We've got a lot of personalities on our team," he said. "Sometimes you can tame them, sometimes you can't. But this was out of hand. I told them: 'You can't get your point across through the media. You have to get your point across on the court.' That's what they were doing. They've been just staying quiet and playing. For Caron and myself, it was just difficult.
"Don't get me wrong, I love D-Steve and I love Gil, and I'll strap it up with them anytime. You have to have your teammates' backs, but what was going on was just nonsense. It had nothing to do with getting respect, because you can only do that by playing well and demonstrating professionalism. You make your noise that way."
And with that bit of common sense ringing in their ears, the Wizards went about the business of playing the way a team with multiple all-stars, good role players and ample depth ought to play.
They got into LeBron James enough to make him miss 13 of 21 shots. They got into the Cavaliers, as a team, enough to hold them to 36 percent shooting. They paid attention to detail enough to commit only one turnover in the second half. And they maintained their poise enough to score the last six points of the game.
Okay, LeBron could have changed all this by making that last shot at the buzzer, the one he put too hard off the glass after blasting past three Wizards for what looked to be yet another LeBron game-winner. If he takes that shot under the same conditions 100 times, I think he makes it 90 times -- and that might be low. Eddie Jordan knew it, too, when he said: "We dodged a bullet in the end. We finally get a miss."
You think Jordan isn't aware of how often a Cleveland Cavalier has hit a shot at the end to beat him? He ticked off the name of every Cleveland hero going back to Mark Price, or at least it seemed.
Of course, this series certainly isn't short on themes. Game 5's themes were Jamison and Butler making their teammates realize silence is golden, and their ability to win without Arenas in the lineup.
The primary reason Butler and Jamison led the team both physically and emotionally was that Arenas announced himself done for the season. He's done, and not just for this series, but for the rest of the postseason. He even said before the game he's going to "retire from blogging."
As a current player not playing in this series told me today, the Wizards aren't better because Arenas is out -- they're better because they get more aggressive when he's out. In other words, there's nobody for them to defer to, and they always defer to Arenas when he's on the floor. "He's best," the veteran player said, "when he's got the ball in his hands."
All season long it's been an inescapable topic of discussion among opposing coaches and players when they faced the Wizards.
Are they better with Gilbert Arenas or without him?
No question, the ball moves better without Arenas. The Wizards themselves move better when he's not out there. The veteran player I talked to said that's only in the short term, because Arenas has been in and out of the lineup. Even Cleveland's Daniel Gibson said afterward: "When Gil is not on the floor, they get a lot of movement. But Gil's also a tough cover for anybody in the league. Yes, they're different with him and without him. But both are difficult."
Well, without him in Game 5, Antonio Daniels, another doer who doesn't care for talking, committed one turnover in 39 minutes and hit 5 of 9 shots. Butler, who scored a playoff career-high 32 points, often took the ball at the top of the circle and either made a jumper, drove or found a teammate for a decent shot, or the pass that led to the assist pass.
Butler, who knows the difference between gamesmanship and idle trash-talking, has been struggling himself physically, though he won't talk about it publicly. "He made some solid decisions," Jordan said of Butler's play. "He's strong enough and skilled enough to beat good defense. And he's smart enough and veteran enough to know when to make a play for somebody else."
Jordan has been down this road before, tight-walking the talk about whether his team is better with Arenas or without him. And the coach has always, including tonight, said the right thing, that his team has learned how to survive without Arenas but would be better off with him healthy. "It's a delicate situation," Jordan said. "He's not the Gil we know and won't be until October. It's difficult. We have learned to absorb that, and learned to play without him."
Now, for the first time the Wizards know that Arenas won't play. There's no more "Will he or won't he" hanging over the season, or even over a single game. It's Butler and Jamison's team now, to lead, to inspire, to tame if necessary. And they've got two games to show that they learned a lesson.