The Cavs Have a LeBron, And the Wizards Don't

Cleveland routs Washington, 105-88, in Game 6 at Verizon Center to knock the Wizards out of the playoffs for the third straight year.
By Michael Wilbon
Saturday, May 3, 2008

Great pitching is the most important ingredient in postseason baseball. Great coaching tilts the table in football. Great goaltending is the overriding factor in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Great players own pro basketball.

The Washington Wizards have some nice pieces; the Cleveland Cavaliers have a truly gifted and great player.

Over the last two weeks, it was easy to get distracted by Soulja Boy and trash talk, hard fouls and championship-level whining. It was entertaining in the way only the NBA playoffs can be, with public posturing and melodrama ruling the days between games. But in the end, the Cavaliers had LeBron James and the Wizards didn't. The tags on LeBron's $410,000 Maybach, if I saw this correctly as he cruised by the other night in Cleveland, say "KING OF OH," which is a bit understated when you consider he's perhaps one all-star teammate away from being King of the Basketball World.

And even if he never reaches that status, the Wizards as presently constituted can't touch him. LeBron had a triple-double by the end of the third quarter of Game 6, scoring, rebounding and finding teammates at will. He told Wally Szczerbiak before the game that he needed Wally to score 17 to 20 points, and Szczerbiak, who's been around for years, complied. LeBron screamed at his teammates for letting Antonio Daniels rumble down the lane for an uncontested dunk, and the Cavaliers tightened it up then and there -- for the rest of the game.

The Wizards can hit him in the head, knock him to the floor, double-team him, zone him, whatever, and the result always is the same.

Two years ago, last year, this year, LeBron wins. And in this case, he didn't just win, he tapped the Wizards out, as they say in mixed martial arts. LeBron, by himself, had more assists than the Wizards as a team, playing on their home floor. Is it a rivalry if the same guy always wins?

So what's the antidote to LeBron?

You have to have a great player of your own, a special player who by skill, intelligence and force of personality controls his team and yours.

That's pretty much the only way you win in the NBA, with a truly great player.

Not all-star players, or great offensive players (such as Gilbert Arenas), or terrific No. 2 players (such as Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison), but with truly dominant players, with MVP-caliber players.

Just look at the league's history. For every Detroit Pistons team that wins a championship (2004) without a great superstar, there have been six with a Michael Jordan, four with a Tim Duncan, four with a Shaq and/or Kobe, two with a Hakeem Olajuwon, two with an Isiah Thomas, five with a Magic Johnson, three with a Larry Bird. That's 26 of the last 28 championship teams that have had one of those all-time great players.

You've got to draft one, trade for one or steal one (the way the Celtics got Bird). You've got to be lucky in the lottery, and perhaps more than once. Remember the Cleveland Cavaliers of the late 1980s and early '90s?

They, like the Washington Wizards, had three all-star-caliber players: Brad Daugherty, Ron Harper and Mark Price. But they couldn't beat Michael Jordan in the playoffs.

Look at who has advanced through the first round already? Duncan, LeBron, Kobe. Great players.

Lacking one of their own, the Wizards needed an out-of-this-world performance from one or both of their star players last night, and the two who were healthy enough to play (Butler and Jamison) gave fine accounts of themselves. Jamison had 23 points, 15 rebounds and 3 blocked shots, a very nice line. Butler finished with 18 points and nine rebounds, but it took him just a few minutes too long to counteract the double-team Cavs Coach Mike Brown came up with after Butler torched Cleveland in Game 5.

There's been quite a bit of talk about what Brown isn't as a coach, and nobody is going to argue that he's Mike D'Antoni when it comes to offensive basketball. But Brown knows defense, and when a team plays great defense it's because they're well coached on that side of the ball. The Wizards didn't get an open look for a spell of about 5 1/2 minutes when Cleveland turned a six-point deficit into a double-digit lead, and Brown should get credit for that.

Everything else, and Brown will be the first to tell you this, is credited to LeBron. He challenged his teammates, then set them up to do what he asked. The 27 points and 13 rebounds were nice, but the 13 assists were the way he controlled Game 6. How do you think Boobie Gibson got most of his 22 points off the bench? How do you think Szczerbiak got most of his 26?

Mike Brown called them "H-O-R-S-E" shots. "They're going to run a second guy and sometimes a third guy at LeBron. [The shooter has to get his] feet ready, hands ready and shoot it," he said.

It wasn't literal double- and triple-teaming as much as it was "loading up" the defense on LeBron. Brown said the Wizards' defense "blitzed" LeBron.

Asked about the defense tilting toward LeBron, Eddie Jordan said: "Great players do that. They make you load your defense on them . . . and if you've got support people to make shots. . . He's a load, man."

What I really don't want to hear is anybody say the outcome would have been different had Darius Songaila played. Of course, the Wizards were out of their normal personnel rotation, and of course it was silly for the NBA to suspend Songaila when there were at least four fouls in the series harder than his, more flagrant than his and more intentional than his backhand to LeBron's face early in Game 5.

Brendan Haywood's body block of LeBron in Game 2 while he was in midair and entirely vulnerable to real injury; DeShawn Stevenson's swing at LeBron's head in Game 4; Anderson's Varejao Game 2 elbow to the face of Andre Blatche; and the top blow of the series, LeBron's elbow to Blatche's mug in Game 1, all were more egregious and none of the above were suspended.

Still, that had little play in last night's action and in the soul-searching that begins as the Wizards try to figure out what they have to do to play deeper into springtime. There are hard questions to ask and answer concerning Arenas, first and foremost, and the team's ability to continue to improve defensively, and perhaps even about Jordan, though there's zero chance I'd make a change there.

As Jordan said, "If it's true you have to take your lumps and your beatings before you [ascend] . . . we're on the brink of that, hopefully."

Cleveland, meanwhile, will continue on because that's mostly what teams with great players do in pro basketball. "We follow his lead," Brown said, meaning wherever he goes, not just to Boston for the second round and a match with the Celtics (if they can get past the Hawks). "If he keeps his poise like he did [in Game 6], we will hop right on his coattails and follow him as long as he takes us."

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