By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 3, 2009
A reunion, delayed by 11 months because of one surgery on Gilbert Arenas's left knee and another on Brendan Haywood's right wrist, took place at Verizon Center last night. In the 77th game of the season, the two Washington Wizards shared the floor for the first time, teaming with two old friends in Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler, against an old playoff foe in LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The last time all of these elements were in place, the Wizards and Cavaliers were playoff rivals, battling for the third year in a row and seemingly on equal footing in the Eastern Conference. But the time apart has been especially brutal for an injury-ravaged Wizards team that has plummeted to the bottom of the East, while an improving James has elevated the Cavaliers to the NBA's best record.
So for the Cavaliers, the game represented another step in a journey that they hope will end in a championship this season, while the lottery-bound Wizards viewed it as a window into their past and future. But for one night, the present wasn't too bad for the Wizards, either, as they snapped the Cavaliers' 13-game winning streak with an emotional 109-101 victory.
"At the end of the day, it's still a meaningless win, as far as the record," Arenas said after scoring 11 points with 10 assists. "But for us, it's a real win because they are trying to be the best. [James] is trying to be the MVP. So they had everything to lose and we had everything to gain from it."
Butler and Jamison carried the offensive load as they have all season, Haywood had a double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds and Arenas continued his impressive playmaking while he continues to work through the rust in his shot. Butler had a team-high 25 points and brought the sellout crowd to its feet after he stole an inbounds pass from James with 22 seconds remaining and sealed the win with two free throws. Jamison had 19 points, leaving the game late in the fourth quarter after jamming his right foot and ankle. Arenas had his second consecutive double-double and has recorded 20 assists and one turnover in his first two games.
James, a favorite to win the league's most valuable player award, finished with a game-high 31 points, but he left this town as a loser for the second time this season.
The Wizards became the third team in the league to beat the Cavaliers twice this season. The other two? The defending champion Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers. "A broke clock's right twice," Arenas said with a laugh.
"We get prepared to play against them, probably like no one else," Wizards interim coach Ed Tapscott said. "We took the challenge that they are the best team in the league this year. It's always great to measure yourself against the best."
The Wizards vs. the Cavaliers had become a rite of spring as the teams met three years in a row, with Cleveland winning each of the playoff series. The series have had some hotly contested games, controversial finishes, buzzer-beaters, gamesmanship at the foul line and even a rap battle. Despite the difference in the standings, the teams entered last night's contest having played two close games, with the Cavaliers needing an 11-0 run to win on Christmas in Cleveland, and the Wizards winning 80-77 on Jan. 4 as James attempted a "crab dribble" and was called for traveling in the closing seconds.
Asked before the game if he's going to miss the Wizards this postseason, Cavaliers Coach Mike Brown said: "In a nutshell, no. From the crab dribble to Soulja Boy to Jay-Z to DeShawn Stevenson, the hard fouls and so on. It's a talented team, and there was a couple of times that some of those games could have gone either way and it could have been the difference in the series. I'm okay not playing those guys."
The teams will meet for the final time this season Wednesday in Cleveland.
These teams are quite familiar with each other, but the Wizards starting lineup of Arenas, Butler, Jamison, Haywood and Dominic McGuire started the game looking like perfect strangers. The Wizards first nine possessions included three Arenas misses, two Jamison misses, one Haywood miss, one Jamison make, two turnovers and a quick 11-2 deficit. "The first five minutes, we was a little sketchy," Butler said.
But they quickly regained their rhythm, eventually taking a 68-54 lead in the third quarter when Arenas threw a three-quarter court lob to Jamison, who rebounded his own miss and laid it in. The Cavaliers got within 89-88 with 6:51 remaining, but the Wizards withstood the run behind the inspired play of Darius Songaila. Songaila (17 points) scored five straight Wizards points, forcing Brown to call timeout as Songaila shouted, "Whoo!"
At the conclusion of the game, Butler took off his jersey and whirled it above his head while Arenas raised his arms to the ceiling. The team exited to a standing ovation. The sweetest reunion. "Just to give the city a flash of what can be next year," Butler said. "I thought that was special."