By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 5, 2009
LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers have handed the Washington Wizards so much misery the past three postseasons, leaving behind visions of James dancing around them in 2005-06, a sweep against an anemic, injury-depleted roster in 2006-07, and a physically combative, six-game loss last season. There have been occasional cameos from the likes of Damon Jones and Delonte West, but from the "Crybaby" signs in the crowd and the boos every time he touched the ball, James has been responsible for most of the Wizards' -- and their fans' -- woes.
James again inconvenienced the Wizards on Christmas day when his desire to wear a new design of his signature sneakers forced them to switch from their road holiday snowflake uniforms; and later, when he inspired an 11-0 run to close out a game in which Washington led by seven points with 93 seconds remaining.
So when the Wizards escaped with an 80-77 victory before a sellout crowd at Verizon Center yesterday afternoon, it was only fitting that interim coach Ed Tapscott went to the white erase board afterward and wrote one word: "Redemption."
As regular season games go, it was the sweetest kind for a Washington team that has spent this entire season at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, while its bitter rival has shot up near the top of the league. The Wizards (7-25) treated the basketball as if it had been dipped in hot grease in the fourth quarter and squandered a 16-point lead before Antawn Jamison (26 points, 13 rebounds) nailed a decisive, 17-foot baseline jumper that gave his team a 79-77 lead with 10.5 seconds left. The shot merely provided James another opportunity to make the home fans reach for the tissues -- and he knew it. Before the Cavaliers inbounded the ball, James walked over to the Wizards' bench, where his adversary DeShawn Stevenson was dressed in a suit of maroon velvet. He screamed, "I'm going to take the three."
James was a man of his word -- except he didn't take a three-pointer. He took three steps.
James did a drop step to get around Caron Butler, and took another to get at the basket, which resulted in a call that the Wizards have been waiting on for some time: traveling. "I knew he traveled, but I didn't think they would've called it," Butler said after scoring 19 points. "[Three] years ago, looking in the playoffs, we get that call, who knows what would've happened with everybody healthy. I was like, 'Aw man. There is a God.' "
Cavaliers Coach Mike Brown, who was ejected in the fourth quarter for disputing an offensive foul on James, agreed with head official Bill Spooner's call that James indeed traveled on the possession. But James was adamant that he did not take extra steps. "Bad call," James said after scoring a game-high 30 points with 10 assists. "That's one of my plays. You know, it kind of looks like a travel because it's slow, and it's kind of like high steps, but it's a one-two. I think they need to look at it again and need to understand that that's not a travel."
For a Wizards team that has had more than its share of hard luck during this 7-25 season, it will take any call -- good or bad -- that goes in its favor. A loss on Sunday would've been ranked highly on the list of most disconcerting defeats this season, especially when the Wizards outrebounded the Cavaliers 52-35, held them to below 40 percent from the field, and led 70-54 with 10 minutes 51 seconds left in the game.
The Wizards led by 12 points with 6:33 remaining when James was called for an offensive foul after he plowed through Wizards point guard Mike James on a fast break. While James kneeled to gather himself, Brown angrily sprinted down the court to protest, picked up two technicals and was tossed. Butler's free throw gave the Wizards a 71-58 lead, but the Cavaliers (27-6) responded with a 19-6 run that began when James dunked and hung on the rim like a Christmas ornament.
The Wizards had eight turnovers in the fourth quarter, with two coming following timeouts in the final 1:06. The first came when Tapscott called a play for Butler. Although James was smothering Butler in the right corner, Dominic McGuire (10 points, 10 rebounds) forced a pass to Butler that went out of bounds. After James tied the game with a driving layup, Tapscott again called a play for Butler, but Mike James ignored his own mismatch against the Cavaliers' Anderson Varejao and tried to force another pass to Butler that squirted out of bounds. "Ooh, can I please rewind the last five seconds," Mike James said he told himself as he watched the ball drift away. "I'm thankful that we had a big enough lead that we could hold them off."
The Wizards also had a clutch basket from Jamison and, finally, a traveling call on James.
"No matter what the record is, we always find a way to play a great basketball game and give the fans what they want to see," Jamison said. "It's fun being part of these games. It's also fun when you get a win."