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Gone Their Separate Ways

By Michael Wilbon
Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Three years ago this week they were dead even, the Cavaliers and Wizards. If anything, Washington seemed a step ahead, having won a playoff series the previous year against the Chicago Bulls while Cleveland failed to make the playoffs. Yes, LeBron James's greatness was beginning to reveal itself by April 2006; but Gilbert Arenas, healthy and an all-star averaging nearly 30 points himself, had every bit as good a regular season as LeBron did.

When the Wizards took a one-point lead into the final 3.6 seconds in overtime of Game 5 in Cleveland the night of May 3, it looked as if they would be advancing to the second round again, and taking another evolutionary step in becoming a serious contender, at Cleveland's expense, no less. But one disastrous defensive lapse allowed LeBron, with nine-tenths of a second left, to flip in a layup to win the game, 121-120. Instead of returning home for a close-out game with a 3-2 series lead, the Wizards lost the series in yet another overtime game, this one made infamous when LeBron talked Arenas into missing a crucial free throw in a one-point loss.

From that moment on, the Cavaliers have steadily evolved to become one of the three best teams in the NBA, perhaps the best. They have the best record in the league heading into the final week of the regular season and the inside track to home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. They have the presumptive MVP in LeBron James, perhaps the coach of the year in Mike Brown. They're doing all this and they already had a Finals appearance two years ago.

The Wizards, on the other hand, have traveled in the exact opposite direction, mostly because of injuries. Arenas has missed most of two seasons with three knee surgeries. Caron Butler missed playoff games. Brendan Haywood missed most of this season. A bad personnel decision allowed Roger Mason Jr. to go to San Antonio. Coach Eddie Jordan was fired. And the Wizards now have the worst record in the Eastern Conference and are just one game removed from having the worst record in the league.

After three straight playoff series with the Cavaliers, all losses, Washington won't be seeing Cleveland this spring. Asked if he would miss playing them in April or May, Brown said, "In a nutshell, no." Brown ticked off one subplot after another. "From the crab dribble to Soulja Boy to Jay-Z to DeShawn Stevenson . . . no."

Brown didn't have to be prompted much to say how little separated the teams three Aprils ago. "Those games were so close," he said. "Weren't three of them decided by one point or overtime? One of those games could have changed the series. It really could have been that if we'd lose one of those series then we would have needed to do even more to the team than keep the nucleus together."

It's not often that Cleveland has to play "What if?" because they'll enter the playoffs as the favorite to reach the NBA Finals. But the Wizards are left with that as they enter what could be a transformative offseason. "Of course we think, 'What if we had everybody healthy,' " Antawn Jamison said. "Then how close would we be? We can't know until we're all out there. Anything that could have gone wrong went wrong this year and last. . . . We haven't been healthy enough to see what we have. Training camp starts and you have this vision."

The Wizards teased themselves even more last week when -- in the first game with Arenas and Haywood in the lineup this season -- they defeated the Cavaliers to stop Cleveland's 13-game winning streak. Another win tonight in Cleveland would almost seem cruel in some ways. Even so, Jamison knows the Cavaliers' 44-game lead over the Wizards very much tells the story of Cleveland's separation.

"That's a franchise and a team that gets it," he said. "LeBron has put himself in that elite category. Then, they know who runs the show on the floor, and nobody on that team does anything outside of what he should be doing. Even when we're healthy, are we going to do that? Are we going to sacrifice? They don't care who's the second-leading scorer or who gets the minutes. We have to find out if I'll be able to sacrifice two or three points a game. Can Caron go down to 19, even 18 points a game? Does Gilbert need to go from 30 down to 25, maybe to 20? That's the biggest challenge for us in the future, I presume. I like our pieces. But what are we willing to do, in-house?

"Every year," Jamison said, "we talk defense. But they went and got better defensively . . . committed to it. And LeBron's their only guy you'd really call a lock-down defender. Otherwise, it's team defense. They figured out how to get better defensively."

The Wizards' primary players, even Jamison, know a trade could take away one of the pieces, too. Ernie Grunfeld, the Wizards' president, maneuvered skillfully to put the pieces together to get the Wizards to the second round of the playoffs. But lately, it's been Cleveland's Danny Ferry, DeMatha's own, who has made crucial moves, even if subtle, that have improved the Cavaliers. Getting another native Washingtonian, guard Delonte West, is one of them.

But there was nothing subtle about the summer trade for guard Mo Williams, who fit not only Cleveland's offensive need, but is the perfect Robin to LeBron's Batman. "Some guys only want to be the number one guy and don't know how to be number two, or don't want to sit in that seat," Williams told me last week. "I love the role. I love playing with LeBron, playing off of him."

With LeBron and Williams at the top of the batting order, if you will, the other Cavaliers seek more appropriate performance levels. Zydrunas Ilgauskas is now the third scoring option. The others, from West to Wally Szczerbiak to Ben Wallace to Anderson Varejao, fill in around them. "Mo Williams," Jamison said, "is a great piece that took them to the next level. He takes big shots and he's not a defensive liability either." It's a model not unlike the one the Bulls used to build around Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.

Still, it seems like just a few months ago that the Wizards thought they had a favorable matchup with Cleveland. "Game 5, when LeBron got the ball in his hands and laid it in," Jamison said, shaking his head. "Every game in that series was close. What sticks out? All the ones we lost. The way it's looking, the Cavs are going to be the favorites. And we've got to create a new identity."

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