Wizards Bounce Back From Embarrassing Loss to Rout CavsDid the Cleveland Cavaliers and Washington Wizards switch jerseys prior to Washington's 108-72 game three win? During the Cavs' 116-86 game two victory it looked like Cleveland could do nothing wrong and Washington could do nothing right but the tables turned completely on Thursday night; the Cavs went from setting a franchise playoff record for biggest winning margin in game two to establishing a franchise playoff record for worst loss in game three. This was also the largest winning margin in a playoff game in Wizards/Bullets history. I sat next to Boston Celtics' scout Dave Wohl during game two and as time wound down I said to him that the funny thing about the NBA playoffs is that as bad as the Wizards looked they could very well win game three at home. Wohl smiled and agreed. All that these back to back blowouts prove is that momentum can really steamroll within a given game during the playoffs but that this momentum does not necessarily transfer to the next game. Danny Ainge once noted that it does not matter how many points you lose by because you start out the next game 0-0, not down by the margin that existed at the end of the previous game. Anyone who has closely followed the NBA playoffs over the years is well aware that there have been many times when a team wins by blowout only to lose the very next game, though reciprocal blowouts are not so common.
DeShawn Stevenson finally made his presence known for something other than running his mouth and waving his hand in front of his face; after scoring 15 points on 5-16 field shooting in the first two games, he led the Wizards with 19 points on 5-9 field goal shooting. Roger Mason also had his best game of the series, scoring 18 points on 8-14 field goal shooting. As Charles Barkley said, some players' games don't travel well; Wizards' players who could not hit the broad side of a barn with their shots in Cleveland played and shot with confidence in the friendly confines of home, while the reverse held true for many of the Cavs.
All-Stars Caron Butler (17 points on 7-14 shooting) and Antawn Jamison (15 points on 5-10 shooting) had solid games, while LeBron James led the Cavs with 22 points on 10-19 shooting. James also had seven rebounds, three assists and four turnovers. His teammates combined to shoot 19-54 (.352) from the field.
Gilbert Arenas started for the first time since returning to action after missing most of the season due to a knee injury. He scored two points on 1-2 field goal shooting, converting on a nice drive to the hoop and missing a deep three pointer. Arenas did not force shots and he made several gorgeous passes; in other words, he played the way that the Wizards need for him to play in order for the team to be successful. The long term problem for the Wizards--aside from the question of when and if he will again be at full strength physically--is that he played this way because he is not healthy enough to play in his typical wild, out of control manner, as indicated by the fact that his balky knee forced him to sit out for good after only 10 minutes of action. The Wizards did OK while he was in the game--he registered a +3 plus/minus number--but they did their best work after he was sidelined, which is when they blew the game open, extending an 11 point lead to 16 at halftime and then pushing it well past 20 in the third quarter. In case anyone misunderstands my longstanding take on Arenas, here it is in a nutshell: Arenas, when healthy, is an All-Star level player but he has never been an MVP-level player and he is an erratic, shoot first point guard who is not well suited to being the lead player on a championship contending team. Some Wizards' fans have deluded themselves into thinking that Arenas can lead Washington deep into the playoffs--apparently on the basis of the fact that the Wizards briefly held on to first place in the East during the 2006-07 season--completely disregarding the reality that Arenas has been with the team since 2003-04 and the Wizards have won exactly one playoff series during that entire time while never winning more than 45 games in a season. It is true that Arenas has missed a lot of games due to injury but why should that make people confident that he can even stay healthy, let alone perform at an elite level during a long season and then lead his team through several rounds of the playoffs? It is wishful thinking to believe that this is going to happen.
In my Cavs-Wizards series preview article for CavsNews.com, I predicted that this series would start out 2-2 before the Cavs prevail in six games. I said that the keys for the Cavs, as always, are the brilliance of LeBron James supplemented by team defense and rebounding, while the Wizards must focus on teamwork and ball movement on offense while limiting James to near his average on defense, thus forcing other Cavs to perform very well. I also predicted that--contrary to all suggestions from the Wizards--Arenas would rejoin the starting lineup, most likely in game three. So far, the series has played out according to the script that I described. The Cavaliers stayed true to their recipe for success in the first two games while at the same time the Wizards displayed little teamwork or poise. In game three, Arenas got the start just as I expected, though his impact on the result proved to be minimal. The Wizards moved the ball very well on offense and though James had a decent game the Wizards held him below his average and only one other Cavalier even scored in double figures: Devin Brown had 10 points on 2-8 field goal shooting.
Some people in Cleveland make fun of Coach Mike Brown when he speaks of taking things "one day, one game, one play at a time" and emphasizes the importance of not getting too high after wins or too low after losses--but LeBron James buys what Brown is selling, which means that everyone else on the roster does, too. Brown is right; most playoff series contain a lot of peaks and valleys and the team that stays the most mentally focused is more likely to win. The Cavs will shake off their game three loss just like the Wizards quickly moved past their game two loss. Game four will probably be the best played, most hotly contested game of the series to this point. No one from either side will admit this but the Cavs are playing with house money; if they lose they still have the opportunity to win game five at home and put the Wizards on the brink of elimination but if the Wizards lose then game three will amount to nothing more than some additional highlights for the season in review DVD. The Wizards have to win game four just to turn this series into a three game mini-series during which the Cavs will enjoy home court advantage.
posted by David Friedman @ 7:53 AM