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Left at Home Again

By Mike Wise
Saturday, May 3, 2008

Remember two years ago, when the Wizards gave up game-winning layups to LeBron James in the teams' first-round series, when they were thought to be so squeezably soft? Now move ahead to Cleveland before Game 5, when a fan's handmade placard read, "Cavs 3, Thugs 1."

Go ahead. Laugh at the irony.

Washington's NBA team, yesterday's gutless wonder, is now perceived as today's lawless ruffian -- Genghis Khan in high tops and mesh.

And it doesn't matter whether they bow to James's throne or try to tip it over, the result is still the same.

The NBA's Prime-time Meal Ticket and His Dogsled 105, The Washington Expendables 88.

Identities do not matter. Role players rotate in and out, like cast members in "Les Misérables." Bottom line, four games to two, James's team used the Wizards as a postseason speed bump for the third straight year, and the gushing from the other side continues.

"Terrific, terrific, terrific, terrific, terrific performance by our guy LeBron James," Cleveland Coach Mike Brown said. Apparently ensuring he stayed on for another year, he actually added, "Terrific."

This is getting so hard to digest.

Done in by a still-teething Bron-Bron and a baby-faced shooter nicknamed Boobie, hovering ominously on the perimeter. Cleveland doesn't rock; it rolls, right over Washington, three years running now. By Wizards injury (Gilbert Arenas's knee, Caron Butler's hip) or league office incompetence (the suspension of Darius Songaila before Game 6 for doing nothing more than what couples do on a KissCam), it doesn't matter.

Cleveland goes on and Washington goes home.

Let's get the pleasantries over quick: James was a sensational player the entire series, weathering a tad of contact but nothing physical enough to call community center quality. Who knew Wally Szczerbiak had anything left, especially 26 points and six three-pointers in a close-out game?

Daniel "Boobie" Gibson looks younger than Davidson wunderkind Stephen Curry, and yet that conniving, cocksure kid just dropped daggers on the Wizards with his 22 points off the bench.

Less than 48 hours after Butler stole Game 5 in Cleveland, the Cavaliers came to take care of business en route to the Eastern Conference semifinals, where they might face -- gulp -- Atlanta.

Butler was double- and triple-teamed in the first half, completely throwing the Wizards off and making Washington's role players and reserves beat the Cavaliers.

But that's where the good-luck-in-the-next-round salutations end.

The suspension of Songaila for Game 6 was one of the great miscarriages of playoff justice ever meted out by the NBA, a travesty that cheated the Wizards out of having a legitimate shot of bringing the series to a Game 7 climax, irrespective of the final score.

I saw wars between the Knicks and Bulls in the early 1990s, when a series didn't start when the road team won a game; the series started when there was a fight.

I covered the Knicks-Heat series of the late 1990s, where every possession was a grueling test of physical will. I saw fouls this postseason, in this very series that warranted more of a suspension than Songaila's inadvertent slap to LeBron's chin after the two could not get their elbows untangled -- Brendan Haywood's hip check on LeBron in Game 2 and LeBron's forearm shiver to Andray Blatche's face in Game 1 come to mind.

But Songaila, who has no extracurricular thug past to speak of in the NBA, gets a game? Oh, that's right, half his face wasn't plastered on an ESPN commercial basically promoting the second round. He wasn't LeBron or Kevin Garnett saying, in synchronization, that, "some dreams never die."

What, there's no Lithuanian dreams in the NBA? Songaila does not have the same desire to play for an NBA title as an American superstar? The caravan has already passed on this controversy because neither Steve Nash nor Amare Stoudemire was involved. Stu Jackson, the league's lord of discipline, whom I greatly admire, cannot sleep well on this one.

Brown was the real star of the series. The Cleveland coach somehow convinced the NBA that the Wizards, heretofore the softest franchise in the Eastern Conference, who used to roll out the red carpet for LeBron as he strolled toward the rim two years ago and stole a series, was in reality Pat Riley's old hooligans in New York or Chuck Daly's bad-boy goons in Detroit.

In Brown's LeBroncentric world, Haywood somehow became Rick Mahorn and Bill Laimbeer rolled into one. DeShawn Stevenson was part Charles Oakley, part Anthony Mason and all Xavier McDaniel. Songaila was Colonel Mustard, and he did it with a lead pipe in the library.

"The one thing that I had a complaint about, the team said they were going to come out and they were going to hit LeBron," Brown said after Game 6, defending his complaints while validating Washington's newfound reputation as tough guys. "When you're in the playoffs, you know it's going to be physical. You're not going to get anything easy going into the paint, but not 'We're going to hit the guy?' It was up to the NBA to clean that up."

Terrific, Mike. We just hope Cleveland Clinic accepts Aetna.

I'm sorry this sounds so homerish and sour grapes, but this skip-CD ending has gotten old quick. What to do now for Ernie Grunfeld, the president of the team? Do you write this one up to health reasons again and deduce that a banged-up Arenas and maybe 70 percent Butler were not physically able to drop the Cavaliers? Do you believe Andray Blatche will one day become Marcus Camby and the rest of the young fellas will contribute?

Or do you start thinking about a genuine makeover, which might include a sign-and-trade that would involve your most marketable player, Gil the Thrill? (Unless a player of Elton Brand's or Carlos Boozer's ilk is out there, it would be very unwise to move Arenas.)

Either way, after Game 6, it ends the same. The softies who let LeBron go in 2006 went on vacation early, just as the Mongolian warlords who actually deigned to touch LeBron in 2008 went on vacation early.

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