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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

"Playoff Basketball is War and Hell"

The Washington Wizards fell behind 23-8 by the 3:13 mark in the first period of game two of their first round playoff series versus the Cleveland Cavaliers--but just when it seemed that the Cavaliers were on their way to a 2-0 series lead the momentum of the game turned around, perhaps sparked by Brendan Haywood's hard foul on LeBron James with 3:47 remaining in the first quarter. James made both of his free throws and on the Cavs' next possession Drew Gooden converted an offensive rebound to put the Cavs ahead by 15 but the Wizards then went on an 18-0 run. James was 2-4 from the field and already had 10 points at the time of Haywood's foul but he only shot 5-21 the rest of the way. The Wizards' 89-84 victory at Quicken Loans Arena gave them home court advantage in the series, which shifts to Washington for the next two games. Neither team played particularly well on offense, but Washington did get strong efforts from each member of its "Big Three": Gilbert Arenas had 30 points, six rebounds and six assists, Caron Butler had 21 points and nine rebounds and Antawn Jamison had 21 points and seven rebounds.

James finished with 26 points, but shot only 7-25 from the field and 11-15 from the free throw line. He had nine rebounds but only two assists. James provided a moment of self-deprecating levity in this postgame remarks, noting that he was one rebound shy of another triple double--if you counted his 10 turnovers. James also had three blocked shots and two steals. The only Cavalier who played well was Drew Gooden, who shot 11-12 from the field, tying Larry Nance's franchise record for field goal percentage in a playoff game (.917). Gooden had a playoff career-high 24 points and 16 rebounds. The Cavaliers' bench players, so key in the game one victory, shot 2-11 from the field and managed only five points in game two. Part of the reason for this and for James' reduced assist totals is that Washington eschewed double teaming James, staying at home on the other Cavaliers and forcing James to either shoot jumpers or accept the hard fouls that came when he drove to the basket. James missed several point blank shots that he would normally convert, including an uncontested dunk. Washington's strategy figures to look a lot less brilliant if James simply shoots his customary percentage on these shots in game three.

Perhaps wanting to deflect any possible attention from the league office, Wizards' players and coaches denied that their game plan specifically targeted James for extra physical contact. Coach Eddie Jordan stressed that he was proud of his team for playing a physical game in general, explaining, "Playoff basketball is war and hell. We go to war and give them hell." He added, "We stayed organized and disciplined," a marked contrast from game one. Forward Caron Butler thought that the Cavs celebrated a little too much after the first game, noting, "A series doesn't start until you lose at home."

Cavaliers' Coach Mike Brown opened his postgame comments by saying that it was a "heck of a game," that it was "physical from the very beginning" and that he felt that his team was "hesitant to attack" Washington's defense. Brown reemphasized what he said before game one: to beat the Wizards, the Cavaliers must control Washington's transition offense, keep the Wizards off of the offensive boards and limit their turnovers. He described Cleveland's effort as "decent" in the first two areas but said that the game was lost largely because of 17 turnovers that led to 26 Washington points.

Conventional wisdom would suggest that the pressure is on Cleveland now because Washington has home court advantage but I disagree. The pressure is still on Washington, because the Wizards have to win two games in a row at some point to win the series. That is the "hidden" part of home court advantage, particularly in a series between fairly evenly matched teams. The Cavaliers will probably win one of the next two games in Washington and if the teams continue to alternate wins, game seven will be in Cleveland and history shows that it is much more difficult to win game seven on the road than it is to win earlier road games in a series. I predicted that this series would return to Cleveland for game five tied 2-2 and I still expect that to happen. Game five will then be very interesting, because it will be LeBron James' first opportunity to push the Wizards to the brink of elimination or else face elimination himself.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:28 AM

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