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With Solid Play, Haywood Is Center of Attention

Wizards center Brendan Haywood gets off a shot over Cleveland's Zydrunas Ilgauskas in Game 3. Haywood is averaging 13 points and 6.3 rebounds in the first-round series. Game 4 is today at Verizon Center.
Wizards center Brendan Haywood gets off a shot over Cleveland's Zydrunas Ilgauskas in Game 3. Haywood is averaging 13 points and 6.3 rebounds in the first-round series. Game 4 is today at Verizon Center. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 27, 2008; Page D01

Brendan Haywood didn't make much of an impact in last year's loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers in a first-round playoff series. And when the Wizards were sent home for the summer with a home loss in Game 4, Haywood removed the nameplate from his locker and walked out of Verizon Center for what he thought might be the last time.

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It was hard to imagine then, but one year later, Haywood is playing the most consistent basketball of his career, and the Wizards, who trail the Cavaliers 2-1 in the best-of-seven series, are thankful that he's still in Washington.

Game 4 is this afternoon at Verizon Center, and if the Wizards are able to even the series, Haywood will probably play a major role.

"He's really just leapfrogged his first six years in one season and just sort of taken a huge leap," Wizards Coach Eddie Jordan said. "He's just been the guy for us, being our only center. He's always said that if he got consistent minutes, he'd perform, and he's done it. He's walked the walk, and he's been great for us all year."

Haywood is averaging a career playoff-high 13 points and 6.3 rebounds -- yesterday he joked that he'd have more if Antawn Jamison wasn't "always stealing my rebounds" -- and his defense on Cleveland center Zydrunas Ilgauskas was a major factor in keeping the Wizards close in a Game 1 loss and in their 108-72 victory in Game 3 on Thursday night.

In last year's series, a Cavaliers sweep, Etan Thomas started at center, and Haywood averaged 4.3 points and 1.7 rebounds in 11.3 minutes. Haywood didn't get off the bench in Game 4.

Thomas has been out all season after undergoing heart surgery during training camp, leaving Haywood as the team's only true center. It's a challenge Haywood has embraced.

He averaged career highs of 10.6 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.7 blocks and drastically improved at the free throw line, where he connected on 73.5 percent of his attempts after shooting 54.8 percent last season.

Haywood credits an increase in playing time, work he's done with shooting coach Dave Hopla and a meeting he had with Jordan and assistant coach Randy Ayers at his North Carolina home before training camp as reasons for his improved play.

"At the end of the day, we both wanted the same thing," Haywood said. "Coach wanted somebody to be effective on the inside, and I wanted to be that basketball player for this team. I think we've got both this year. I've had a pretty good season, and we've had an inside presence."

Haywood is playing with a higher level of confidence than he displayed in his first six seasons.

He's always had an effective right hand jump hook and a decent turnaround jump shot, but this season Haywood has been more aggressive in attacking the rim with drop steps and other moves that lead to high-percentage shots and draw fouls.

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