Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Caron and LeBron Tangle at the Q

If Gilbert Arenas was Superman, the Cleveland Cavaliers would be his Kryptonite. In each of the last two seasons, the Wizards' path to the Eastern Conference Finals went through Cleveland. And in each of those two seasons, it ended at the hands of one, LeBron James. Last season's short-handed sweep with Arenas and Caron Butler seated and suited on the sidelines was an especially bitter pill to swallow for Washington's co-captain. Tough Juice swore he would never witness another deflating exit courtesy of the Cavs.

Well, Gilbert Arenas isn't Superman, he's Agent Zero...and he's still out after a second surgery on his knee. In his absence, Butler has captained the Wizards to a 19-12 record and an ever-improving gritty defensive style that has fueled victories over elite teams in both conferences. Tonight at Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena, the Wizards (22-17) get another measuring stick test to see just how far they've come.

In their first meeting this season, Washington drilled the Cavs 105-86 at the Phone Booth. In that December 5 win, Butler, Antawn Jamison and Brendan Haywood combined for 61 points, 29 rebounds and eight blocks. But that victory came sans Arenas, but Cleveland was also lacking several of its stars - see James, Anderson Varejao and Donyell Marshall. Since James returned to the lineup, the Cavs (22-18) have gone 12-6 and with 10 wins in their last 12 games, they're the hottest team in the NBA. With both teams currently battling for the fourth spot in the East - the Wiz are 1/2 game ahead going into tonight's game - this game could be a pivotal turning point for both teams.

Questions for the Q

  • Can the Wizards continue their defensive turnaround against the league's most dominant player?
  • Can Haywood and Jamison win the battle of the boards against Cleveland's front-line of Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Varejao?
  • Will DeShawn Stevenson and Drew Gooden pull out the tape measures to check the progress of their pre-season beard bet?
  • Speaking of the Locksmith, will he show up to tonight's game in his bathrobe?
  • With a slow pace being their preference, will the Cavaliers fare better than the up-tempo Mavs and Celts against Washington's pressure defense?
  • This should be a close one, so who will step up off the bench and be the difference maker for either team? Roger Mason? Daniel Gibson? Maybe Nick Young?
Key Match Up
  • Brendan Haywood v. Zydrunas Ilgauskas - With all the attention on the All-Star match up of King James v. Tough Juice, the battle of the big men could be the difference in tonight's game. Ilgauskas averages 13.3 points and 9.6 boards per game, giving him a slight advantage in both categories over Haywood (10.3, 7.7). But 'Z', as they call him, likes to step out for mid-range jumpers, which should give Baby Huey (hey, I don't make these up), the inside track to the defensive glass. Haywood has not only been strong on the boards, but he's also improved his shot-blocking (1.7 per game, up from 1.4 for his career) and shot-altering ability. He's no longer afraid to bang with the big guys in the paint, and he'll need to use all his muscle when the much quicker Varejao spells Ilgauskas. Look for Andray Blatche (4.6 boards, 1.6 blocks) to be another key contributor tonight as he should get plenty of minutes.
King James has really taken it to a new level of late. He's averaging 32.1 points on an insane 49.8 percent shooting in 2008 and already leads the NBA in scoring at 29.7 points per game. While Caron Butler can put up points with the best of them - he's averaging 23 in his last three - Washington would be wise to avoid a Gilbert-esque back-and-forth shootout with LeBron. The Wizards are winning because they're sharing the ball, playing team defensive and getting after it night in and night out, no matter their opponent. If they can stick to the plan, control the boards and play another 48 minutes of hard-nosed defense, I really like their chances. This is the best I've seen an Eddie Jordan team play and they really seem to be enjoying the challenge of out-working their opponents on both ends of the floor. Put LeBron down for 35 but I'll take the Wizards in a typical Cleveland-Washington nail-biter: 97-93.

All photos AP/Getty: Except for the Locksmith, that one came courtesy of

-- The Tar Heel

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