By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 9, 2009
CLEVELAND, April 8 -- The last time the Washington Wizards were at Quicken Loans Arena was on Christmas and they were close to becoming the first team to beat the Cleveland Cavaliers in this building this season. But after some unfortunate missteps -- which have come to define this woeful season -- the Wizards blew a seven-point lead with 93 seconds remaining and witnessed the Cavaliers score the final 11 points.
"Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades," Wizards interim coach Ed Tapscott said before the Wizards faced their former playoff rival on Wednesday for the final time this season. "Coming close means nothing. In the end, we lost here."
The Wizards would've given anything to be close to -- or at least in the same area code as -- the Cavaliers on Wednesday night. For the first time in four games, the distance between the Eastern Conference's worst team and best team was finally apparent, as the Wizards trailed by 24 points in the second half before eventually losing, 98-86.
Nick Young scored 16 points and Andray Blatche had 14 for the Wizards (18-61) but Tapscott didn't even bother playing starters Caron Butler (10 points) or Antawn Jamison (seven points) after the Cavaliers built a 20-point lead entering the fourth quarter. The Cavaliers had everything going their way, and it didn't help that Blatche and Young both tipped in shots for Cleveland while fighting for rebounds.
"That's what kind of day it was for us," Young said.
The Cavaliers (63-15) improved to 38-1 at home and are two wins from matching the 1985-86 Boston Celtics for the best home record in NBA history. LeBron James didn't play the final period, either, after scoring 21 points with seven assists and six rebounds. He served as a cheerleader during garbage time, playing air guitar on the bench and jumping out of his seat after reserves Joe Smith and Ben Wallace had fast-break dunks on consecutive possessions.
"We'd rather not see each other," James said about not having to face Washington for a fourth consecutive year in the playoffs. "It got a little bit out of control. We became heated rivals. They'll be back in the Eastern Conference next year."
James meant the Eastern Conference playoff race, but it's debatable what league the Wizards have been in this season. In what they hoped was a snapshot of their future, the Wizards upset the Cavaliers last Thursday on national television with a starting lineup of Gilbert Arenas, Brendan Haywood, Butler and Jamison for the first -- and possibly only -- time this season. Arenas had 11 points and 10 assists that night, but on Wednesday he missed his second consecutive game and fourth overall since returning from his third left knee surgery against Detroit on March 28. Tapscott said that he hopes Arenas will play Monday against Toronto at Verizon Center.
"We said he'd play selected games," Tapscott said. "The issue really is taken out of the context of the knee; the knee is fine. But you know when you haven't played in a while, your body reacts to playing at a real high level. Soreness and all of those other things come in. We didn't want to overtax him. So, we're going to stick to that plan."
Arenas had originally stated that he would play home games and select road games, including in Cleveland because of his special love-hate relationship with the Cavaliers' fans. Before the game, Arenas sat in front of his locker-room stall, looking at a calendar on his computer and plotting his workout plans for after the season ends.
When asked why he didn't want to stick it to the Cavaliers, who were hoping to extend their impressive home record, Arenas said, "I already did." He then went on to mention how he helped end the Cavaliers' 13-game win streak last week in Washington.
The Wizards' 109-101 victory left Cleveland in a funk that carried over into the next night when it was hammered in Orlando. But the Cavaliers regained their focus back home on Sunday with a 20-point win against San Antonio. They welcomed back Wallace, who missed the previous 21 games with a broken right leg, and were inspired to snap their two-game losing streak to Washington.
The Wizards didn't help themselves as they missed seven of their first eight shots and had eight turnovers in the first quarter, which led to 12 points for the Cavaliers.
"Knowing the circumstances, knowing what we was up against, knowing what formula has worked in the past, and to come out and do the exact opposite is disappointing," Jamison said. "No excuses. The Wizards, for some reason, when they do something good, take four or five steps back. And we just continue to take steps back."
Only three more steps remain in this dreadful campaign.