Thursday, December 6, 2007

Wizards Get A Measure of Revenge...Sort Of...

The Eastern Conference Champion Cleveland Cavaliers limped into the district last night without three of the role players who helped them to 2007 NBA Finals and riding a four-game losing streak. Ex-Wizard Larry Hughes, wily sharpshooter Donyell Marshall and the recently re-signed Anderson Varejao (who the Cavs only opened up their wallet for to prevent him from going to the Bobcats) were all out of the lineup as Washington hosted their newest rivals for the first time since last April's playoff series. Oh yeah...and that LeBron James character was in street clothes too.

But with the bitter taste of that first round trouncing still lingering, the Wizards (9-9) showed no mercy to their shorthanded opponents. Caron Butler and company used a 31-point second quarter and a dominant performance on the boards to chase the reeling Cavs (9-11) out of Verizon Center after a 105-86 victory.

Imagine that! A team that's favored to win a game against a shorthanded opponent actually following through on it. Hey Joey G., you seeing this?

Butler, who has been nothing short of MVP-like this season, posted another statistical gem scoring a game-high 27 points on 13-of-23 from the field with seven boards, four steals, two assists and a block. He's now averaging 23.2 points (10th most in the NBA), 6.7 boards, 3.1 dishes and 2.1 steals (9th) and 40.3 minutes (4th) per contest. And it's not taking Butler tons of shots to reach his totals either. At 53 percent, he's 17th in the league in shooting percentage (only two players ahead of him are not centers of power forwards who get half of their buckets on dunks) and for a guy who had no outside shot before this season, how good does 51 percent (4th in the league) sound? That's efficiency, a word the run and gun Wizards teams of the past few years never learned.

It's not only Caron who's getting it done either. Antawn Jamison is averaging a double-double (21.6 & 10.3), Antonio Daniels is running the offense smoothly, Brendan Haywood is simply giddy in his fortified starting role - averaging career highs in points (9.9) and boards (7.9) - and that Nick Young kid is really starting to wow people with his quick scoring ability from anywhere on the floor. Throw in the constantly-improving Andray Blatche, a reliable big man in Darius Songaila, a perimeter defender in DeShawn Stevenson, and role players off the bench like Dominic McGuire and Roger Mason Jr. and you've got a team that can win on any given night in the lackluster East. More importantly, you've got a team that is not only surviving, but is really starting to figure out how to get it done without it's marquee star. The belief is if the Wiz can hover around .500 until Gilbert Arenas returns to the lineup in three months, they'll make the playoffs. The way this team has played in it's last two games combined with how weak the East looks (yet again) after you get past Boston, Orlando and Detroit, Washington could conceivably be fourth in the conference when Agent Zero comes back.

There's no doubt the Wizards are a better team with their star on the floor, but in his absence, Butler and Jamison have delivered, Haywood has finally grown up and the Wizards are holding strong. Inconsistency has still plagued them at times, but look for this next stretch of home games - one that features a home match-up with Phoenix, followed by against conference bottom-feeders Atlanta (7-10), Indiana(9-10), Charlotte (6-11), Chicago (what? yeah, they're 5-11) and two each against Miami (4-13) and New Jersey (9-10) - to dictate the way this season will go. If they beat the teams they should beat - i.e. all of these duds - and take care of their home floor, the Wiz are set. Now they just have to do what they're supposed to do...or be who we think they are.


  • No one likes a guy who plays for stats. A few years ago Ricky Davis, then playing for the Cavs when they used to wear those light blue unis, notoriously grabbed a rebound in the waning moments of a Cleveland loss and promptly tossed it back off the backboard himself in order to tally a triple-double. Classy. Last night, Brendan Haywood clearly knew he had been sitting on nine boards for the last few minutes of the game. With the final margin already lit on the scoreboard, a Cleveland player drove to the basket for a lay-in. Brendan contested the shot and snatched the rebound out of the air faster than Steven A. Smith reaching for a cheese doodle. The buzzer sounded and Haywood sprinted to the locker room with a massive smile across his face. Yeah, double-doubles are inconsequential in the scheme of things, but you gotta love a guy who has finally become the aggressive force in the paint he was drafted to be actually playing like a 7-footer.
  • The Wizards have been getting by without adding a body to their bench for over a month now. With Arenas, Etan Thomas and Oleksiy Pecherov still out, their 10-man roster barely gives them enough players to scrimmage in practice. One injury and Eddie Jordan is going to be suiting up in the layup line. Team president Ernie Grunfield has been reluctant to go over the luxury tax to give the team a little more depth and doesn't look like he'll budge on that unless an impact player becomes readily available. So for now, the Wiz will keep knocking on wood, but maybe it's time for Eddie to start getting back into shape. Never know when they might need him.

-- The Tar Heel

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