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Saturday, May 03, 2008

Once Talkative Wizards Go Down Silently in Game Six

For such a talkative, confident and brash group, the Washington Wizards sure went down meekly in game six of their series with the Cleveland Cavaliers; the Wizards played smart, competitive basketball for about a quarter and a half and then fell apart, causing their initially boisterous home fans to gradually become silent and then begin slowly filtering out of the arena as the inevitability of the outcome became clear. LeBron James quieted the crowd's "overrated" and "crybaby" chants with another magnificent performance, notching his third career playoff triple double (27 points, 13 rebounds and a playoff career-high 13 assists) as the Cavaliers never trailed in the second half en route to a 105-88 victory. James achieved his triple double by the end of the third quarter. Wally Szczerbiak made the Wizards pay whenever they trapped James, scoring a playoff career-high 26 points while shooting 6-13 from three point range. Daniel Gibson (22 points, 4-6 shooting from three point range) also repeatedly punished the Wizards for leaving him open. Antawn Jamison led the Wizards with 23 points and a game-high 15 rebounds but he did not receive much help.

The Cavaliers double teamed game five hero Caron Butler, who was largely invisible for most of game six before padding his stats after the game was out of reach to finish with respectable totals (18 points, nine rebounds). Before recapping what happened in the game, it is worth revisiting the difference between being an MVP-level player and being an All-Star. There are rarely if ever more than five legitimate MVP candidates in a given season, yet media members and fans continually anoint numerous All-Star players as "superstars" and "MVP candidates." They did that with Gilbert Arenas early in the 2006-07 season and I even heard some talk about Butler being an MVP candidate when the Wizards played well without Arenas this season. I guess I just have a much higher standard for such things; unless you have an established history of being an MVP-level player, even having a great month does not make you an MVP candidate in my book. That is why I did not buy the idea that Brandon Roy was an MVP candidate just because Portland had a 13 game winning streak early in the season; you should have to play at least one full season at an MVP level before your name is mentioned in MVP discussions: that is why I ranked Chris Paul seventh (i.e., out of the top five and therefore not a serious candidate) in the first edition of the Blogger MVP/RoY rankings only to steadily move him up the charts after Paul demonstrated that he was in fact putting together an MVP caliber season as opposed to being an All-Star level player who had an early season hot streak.

Butler was phenomenal in game five, producing 32 points, nine rebounds and five assists and making the game-winning layup with 3.9 seconds left. However, it is worth noting that the 32 points were a playoff career-high for Butler and that he was not able to even come close to matching that performance despite playing at home in an elimination game. That is the difference between being an MVP candidate and being an All-Star: James puts up 32, nine and five on a regular basis, regardless of what defensive coverage he faces, but Butler is not able to do that. I don't think that Butler "choked," I just think that he is not the kind of player who is going to play at an MVP level night after night; over the course of a series, he will put up All-Star numbers and he may have a game in which he plays like an MVP. Butler averaged 18.7 ppg, 5.7 rpg and 3.8 apg in the series.

Szczerbiak hit his first two three pointers as Cleveland took a quick 12-6 lead but the Wizards played with energy, crashed the offensive glass and responded with a 25-11 run to go up 31-23, which would turn out to be their biggest lead of the game. Cleveland cut that margin in half in just 26 seconds after an Anderson Varejao layup and a coast to coast drive by Gibson that just beat the buzzer. James scored just two points but he had four assists.

The Wizards maintained their lead until midway through the second quarter when the Cavs went on a 21-3 run that effectively decided the outcome of the game; that put the Cavs up 56-43 and even though the Wizards answered with five points to end the period they never really seriously threatened again. There was a little bit of drama right before halftime when Gibson seemed to be fouled on a buzzer beating three point attempt but no foul was called. James said something to the notoriously short-fused Steve Javie, who instantly rang James up with a technical foul and then belligerently gestured to James to leave the court. James, who was waiting around to do a halftime on-air interview with Ric Bucher, wisely did not say anything further to Javie. Bucher asked James what he said to Javie prior to getting the technical and James insisted that he did not say anything disrespectful. James had 10 points, seven assists and six rebounds at the intermission, while Jamison led the Wizards with 16 points and seven rebounds and Butler had just five points on 2-6 field goal shooting.

Prior to the start of the third quarter, Butler--a .901 free throw shooter during the regular season--missed the free throw resulting from James' technical foul. After a James jumper and a Szczerbiak three pointer, Cleveland led 61-48. The Wizards' offense, which looked energetic and crisp in its execution in the first quarter, devolved into various players settling for long jump shots. The Wizards stayed in contact for a few minutes but then the Cavs started to pull away and Cleveland's 79-64 lead at the end of the period felt like a bigger margin because the Wizards' players were already hanging their heads and presenting the body language of a team that knew it could not come back.

Sure enough, the Wizards made no run in the final stanza as the teams simply traded baskets down the stretch. Both teams emptied their benches around the two minute mark. As far as I could tell, the Cavs engaged in no trash talking and no excessive celebrating; they did not rub their victory in the faces of the Washington players or their fans. I wonder if the same would have held true if the outcome had been reversed?

For the first five games of the Cleveland-Washington series, the Wizards had a lot to say, even if much of it was not worth hearing. DeShawn Stevenson, who scored 10 points on 2-9 field goal shooting and had an up close and personal view as James dominated game six, kicked things off a month ago by barking that James is "overrated." Wizards' supporters like to emphasize how long ago Stevenson said that--but Stevenson never backed off from that ludicrous statement. When he was not limping around like Fred Sanford or jacking up shots like the Agent Zero of old, Gilbert Arenas told his ghostwriter to announce to the world (via his blog) that "We want Cleveland," adding that he did not think that the Cavs were playing well and that they could not beat the Wizards in the playoffs three straight years. Then the Wizards upped the ante by becoming wanna be tough guys, not only giving James hard fouls on several occasions but being dumb enough to announce to the world that this was their game plan, thus bringing further negative attention on to their team. If they thought that this would rattle James and cause him to stop driving to the hoop and/or lose his cool then they were sadly mistaken.

The Wizards actually have a very classy owner, Abe Pollin, a good coach in Eddie Jordan and two hardworking, professional and classy All-Stars in Butler and Jamison; unfortunately for Washington, it took until game five--when Arenas shut himself down for the season--for Butler and Jamison to reassert control over their team's locker room, essentially telling their squad to shut up, calm down and let their play do their talking. As Jamison put it, "We just said, 'It's time to stop all the talking.' A lot of guys were trying to defend themselves as far as this and that. But it wasn't working. We said, 'The ultimate change around is for us to just be quiet and find a way to come back from 3-1 and win the series. I think they finally got it." Anyone who knows anything about the NBA realizes that Butler and Jamison wanted nothing to do with the trash talking and the sideshow antics that Arenas, Stevenson and Brendan Haywood--who started the "crybaby" nonsense--introduced into this series but Butler and Jamison had to walk a delicate line between supporting their wayward teammates publicly yet trying to steer the team as a whole in a positive direction. Butler finally spoke up prior to game five, telling a TNT interviewer that anything that did not come out of his mouth or out of the mouth of co-captain Jamison did not reflect what the Wizards as a team stand for or believe. You may have noticed during game six that when James collided with Butler or Jamison that he made a point of extending an arm and helping them up; although Pat Riley would decry offering assistance to the "enemy," James showed that he recognizes that Butler and Jamison are true professionals who are worthy of his respect.

It is only fitting to give James the last word: "Cleveland has advanced and we won the series 4-2. That speaks much louder than anything I can say about the fans here, anything about DeShawn Stevenson. Cleveland has advanced. That's all that matters."

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:37 AM

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