Christmas Matchup of Wizards and Cavaliers Lacks Its Former Sparkle

By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 25, 2008

CLEVELAND, Dec. 24 -- When the NBA put together its schedule of five nationally televised games for Christmas day, a Washington Wizards-Cleveland Cavaliers matchup seemed enticing. The teams have met in three straight playoff series and any game pitting Wizards star Gilbert Arenas against Cavaliers star LeBron James would hold appeal.

But when the NBA set the schedule over the summer, it had no way of anticipating that Arenas would still be in street clothes when the teams meet for the first time this season on Thursday night at Quicken Loans Arena. And no one who watched the Wizards overcome Arenas's absence to win 43 games last season would have guessed that the 4-22 Wizards, losers of seven straight, would be off to the worst start in franchise history.

Then again, the Wizards, who are also playing without center Brendan Haywood, might have finally hit the wall after battling a string of injuries to key players the past three seasons.

"They've kind of held on, held on, held on and then finally, it kind of impacted them," Cleveland Coach Mike Brown said. "Not just because of this year, but because the year after year, the same boat, same boat, of having to start without your whole cast. It gets pretty tough. It can be the thing that gets you down as a group and it probably has with them."

Still, Wizards forward Caron Butler said he was eagerly anticipating the opportunity to perform on Christmas.

"Those were always the games everyone watched growing up," Butler said. "You know, it was always Michael Jordan going against the Knicks or something like that. The family would be sitting around the television watching the game after opening presents. So, it's a special thing and I'm looking forward to it no matter what our record says."

The Wizards are the only sub-.500 team playing Thursday and they are coming off Tuesday night's brutal 80-72 loss at Charlotte. The Wizards shot a season-low 32.3 percent, totaled a season-low nine assists and were undone by a 10-0 run late in the fourth quarter against the Bobcats.

That is not the way a struggling team wants to enter a matchup against James and the Cavaliers (24-4), who have won 14 straight games at home and are 14-0 against teams with losing records.

Wizards interim coach Ed Tapscott wasn't in a hurry to discuss his team's next assignment immediately following Tuesday's disappointment in Charlotte.

"I was hoping not to confront that thought for another 20 minutes," Tapscott said. "I mean, look, they are playing some of the best basketball in the league and they have the best player in the league, arguably. If he isn't one, he's one-A. We really need to bring a lot of fire and perhaps more simplicity to what we do so we're not thinking so much, we're just playing more."

Tapscott anticipates that playing on Christmas against a team such as the Cavaliers should spark something in his team. Washington's last two meetings with elite teams produced very different results. The Wizards put up a fight and were in position to beat the Lakers (23-5) on Dec. 5 but Butler's attempt at a game-winning three-pointer missed at the buzzer. Against Boston (27-2) six days later, the Wizards were pounded, 122-88.

"It's a nationally televised game so you want to show well, you want to play well," Tapscott said. "You should want to test yourself against one of the best teams in the league."

Staff writer Michael Lee contributed to this report.

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