Wizards' 5 Minus 0 Is Still 5

Washington Confident Even Without Arenas

Cavaliers Coach Mike Brown says the Wizards are more aggressive without Gilbert Arenas, who is out for the postseason with a knee injury.
Cavaliers Coach Mike Brown says the Wizards are more aggressive without Gilbert Arenas, who is out for the postseason with a knee injury. (By Ned Dishman -- Nbae/getty Images)
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By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 2, 2008

The Washington Wizards have won two games in their playoff series with the Cleveland Cavaliers, and in those games Gilbert Arenas either played very little (Game 3) or not at all (Game 5).

So, are the Wizards a better team without Arenas?

There's no clear answer. Except for a 10-minute span in Game 1 where he made four three-pointers and poured in 14 points, he didn't have much of an impact on this series because of limited playing time. The keys to Wizards wins this postseason have had little to do with Arenas.

The three-time all-star is out for the postseason, and Cleveland leads the best-of-seven series, 3-2. Arenas, who has been limited by a left knee injury throughout the series, missed the team's thrilling 88-87 Game 5 win in Cleveland on Wednesday night after he and the medical staff decided to shut him down shortly before the game.

Game 6 is tonight at Verizon Center, where the Cavaliers have eliminated Washington the past two seasons, whether Arenas was in uniform (Game 6 in 2006) or not (Game 4 last April 30).

Clearly his teammates, especially all-star forward Antawn Jamison, respect Arenas's attempt to come back from two knee surgeries and contribute to the playoffs.

"Gilbert is a special talent and I've said it before and I'll say it again: We are a better team with him out there on the court," Jamison said. "It's just unfortunate with the injuries and things like that, but we do not play better without him. We're just a team that always finds a way to play with our backs up against the wall, and that's what we did" in Game 5.

Arenas averaged 10.8 points on 38.9 percent shooting and 2.8 assists in 23.5 minutes in four games during this series. (During the 2006 first-round series, won by Cleveland 4-2, Arenas averaged 34 points per game on 46.4 percent shooting.)

In snapping an eight-game losing streak at Cleveland on Wednesday, the Wizards didn't shoot the ball particularly well (40.8 percent) but turned the ball over only 12 times and held their own in rebounding after being dominated, 51-31, during a 100-97 home loss in Game 4.

The primary difference between Game 5 and the previous four games was the assertiveness of all-star forward Caron Butler, who broke out to score 32 points on 11-of-22 shooting, with a series-high four three-pointers and also nine rebounds and five assists.

With the game on the line and Arenas in street clothes, Coach Eddie Jordan drew up a play involving Jamison and Butler, who rewarded his coach by taking a pass from Jamison and then making a driving layup with 3.9 seconds to play.

Butler got rolling by making a three-pointer -- just his second of the series -- less than two minutes into the game and went on to score 14 of his 32 points in the first period. Butler finished with 14 points in Game 1, 12 in Game 2 and seldom looked as aggressive as he did Wednesday.

He did not attribute the strong game to Arenas's absence but did talk about the adjustment the team made to playing with and without the man nicknamed Agent Zero.

"We had to get used to him," said Butler, who has battled a number of injuries over the second half of the season. "Obviously, the veteran guys had a feel for him and the younger guys had to get a feel for him as well, but now that he's out, everything goes back to normal for the most part."

Butler said his lively play on Wednesday was the product of fresher legs.

"I'm just feeling much better," he said. "Trying to get my legs back underneath me. Missing the last two weeks of the season set me back so I'm just trying to get my rhythm back, and the last couple of games I've found my rhythm."

The Wizards have had plenty of practice playing without Arenas, who missed 66 games after undergoing surgery on his left knee in November. He also sat out three of the final eight games of the regular season after making his return on April 2.

Veteran point guard Antonio Daniels, who started a career-high 63 games this season, slid back into a starting role Wednesday night, and the Wizards ran much of their offense through Butler and Jamison, while also getting a strong effort out of shooting guard DeShawn Stevenson (17 points).

It helped that Roger Mason Jr. came off the bench to contribute eight points in 20 minutes, and defensively the Wizards did a much better job of closing out on shooters while forcing the Cavaliers into 36 percent shooting.

Jordan, who learned that Arenas would not be available a little more than an hour before tip-off Wednesday night, said that he did not take a different tactical approach.

"It doesn't change anything," Jordan said. "We just know that guys are solid in their roles and their minutes and their rotations. That's solid for us, that helps us. That's why Roger's coming off looking very confident, looking very aggressive and we even put Nick [Young] in there for a moment. And [Daniels] has a means of controlling the game and he doesn't turn the ball over and we know what we have to attack with our forwards and with rolls [to the basket] and paint scores."

Cleveland Coach Mike Brown, who spent yesterday trying to figure out how his team blew a five-point lead with just over a minute remaining Wednesday, saw a difference in the Wizards.

"Their whole team it seems to me, at least in the two games that Gilbert hasn't played or didn't play a lot, is more aggressive," Brown said. "And that's something we have to go out and do a better job of defensively, controlling their other guys and making it tough for a guy like Caron and a guy like Antawn. We have to make someone else beat us."

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