Friday, April 18, 2008

Cavs - Wiz: Act Three

All season long there seemed to be a certain sense of inevitability about this matchup. I don't know what the record is for consecutive first round playoff meetings, but the way things have gone in recent years, I wouldn't be surprised if this pairing doesn't break it. But while the Eastern Conference might have lacked the on-court drama down the stretch of it's left-ward counterpart, there's certainly been no short of drama off the hardwood. And that, more than the fact that there will be five current or former all-stars going toe-to-toe, makes this one of the most intriguing first round series of 2008.

The Story So Far

Two years ago, LeBron James almost single-handedly knocked the Wizards out of the first round with multiple baseline drives for game-winning layups. Washington fans cried "Travel!" while Cleveland fans praised their monarch. And there was also that little whisper and pat on the chest from LeBron just before Gilbert Arenas stepped to the line for the second of two critical free throws. Of course Gilbert missed it long, Damon Jones sank the shot of his career and the rest is history.

Last season, the Wiz limped into the postseason sans Gilbert and Caron Butler and, not surprisingly, got swept, despite a tremendous effort from their captain, Antawn Jamison.

As if two tough first-round losses wasn't enough to get the Wizards amped up for a rematch, DeShawn Stevenson decided to stir the pot following Washington's 101-99 home win against Cleveland on March 13, calling LeBron "overrated." LeBron came back with his "It's almost like Jay-Z saying something bad about Soulja Boy" line. DeShawn responded with "I hope we play Cleveland. I'm going to get Soulja Boy courtside seats and have him wear a DeShawn Stevenson jersey. Maybe he can have Jay-Z there since LeBron's all on his (shorts) anyway." And then just in case he didn't get the message, "And tell LeBron to cut that beard off and stop copying me."

Then this week Mr. "I'm not talking to the media" Arenas throws this up on his blog:

"I think everybody wants Cleveland in that first round. They’ve been a .500 team ever since they made that trade and everybody wants a chance at that matchup. We want Cleveland for our own reasons, we don’t think they can beat us in the playoffs three years straight. It’s hard to beat a team three years straight. We want to try our luck."

Upon reading this, Charles "Soon to be the governor of Alabama if he can ditch the gambling addiction" Barkley called the Wizards "the dumbest team in the history of civilization."

Suffice it to say, there are plenty of story lines to watch in this series that go well beyond the play on the court. But while this little war of words is fun for the media, and those involved, ultimately, this series will come down to execution on the court. Surprise!

This Season

The two teams split their four-game season series with each winning twice at home and losing twice on the road. Gilbert Arenas missed all of the games and a couple other key players weren't in action in two more of the meetings.

Dec. 5 @ Washington - Wizards 105, Cavaliers 86
No LeBron James = a Wizards' walloping.

Jan. 23 @ Cleveland - Cavaliers 121, Wizards 85
This one was ugly from the start with the Wizards completely breaking down on the defensive end and allowing Zydrunas Ilgauskas to score 24 points on 10-for-10 shooting from the field...without even playing in the fourth quarter. The Cavs shot 56.6 percent from the field while Washington's starters combined to score just 42 points.

Feb 22 @ Cleveland - Cavaliers 90, Wizards 89
Even without Caron, Washington nearly dug this one out behind double-figure scoring from Jamison, Haywood, Stevenson, Blatche and Songaila off the bench. James scored 33 to lead all scorers and hit the game-winning free throws with 7.8 seconds left to lift the Cavs - who were without new additions Ben Wallace, Wally Szczerbiak, Delonte West and Joe Smith.

Mar. 13 @ Washington - Wizards 101, Cavaliers 99
This was the one that started all the trash talking. Caron Butler returned to score 19 and DeShawn Stevenson drew a charge from James with 19.4 seconds left to preserve the victory and start the jawing.

The Matchups

Point Guard: Antonio Daniels (8.4 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 4.8 apg) v. Delonte West (8.3, 3.2, 3.8) -
AD has the most playoff experience of anyone on the Wizards' roster from his years in San Antonio (see his ring) and Seattle. His wrist has bothered him over the last couple months but he lives for the postseason and has proven his playoff worth many times in the past. Look for him to elevate his play, despite a decrease in minutes with the return of Arenas. This will be West's first trip to the postseason, but the former St. Joseph's star has the quickness to give Daniels trouble on the defensive end. Neither player is relied upon to score a great deal - and with Stevenson, Arenas and Butler for the Wiz and LeBron for the Cavs, both frequently lose their bringing the ball up responsibilities - but whoever can best dictate the tempo and limit his turnovers will give his team an important edge in the back-court. Edge: Wizards (barely)

Shooting Guard: DeShawn Stevenson (11.2, 2.9, 3.1) v. Devon Brown (7.5, 3.4, 2.2) - Defensively, the Locksmith has requested the assignment of taking on LeBron James - which would give him a chance to put his money where his mouth is. But on the offensive end, the Wiz will rely on Stevenson to make big buckets from the perimeter and take care of some of the ball-handling duties. He has taken a leadership role on this team in Gilbert's absence, delivering clutch shots down the stretch in close contests and he'll need to continue his hard-nosed play for the Wizards' to win this series. Brown is a spot up shooter who can also get to the rim but shouldn't be the type of factor Damon Jones was in the 2006 series - unless the Wizards decide to leave him open every time down the floor. They he could hurt them. Edge: Wizards

Small Forward: Caron Butler (20.3, 6.7, 4.9) v. LeBron James (30.0, 7.9, 7.2) -
In a huge matchup between two all-stars, the edge has to go to LeBron, simply because of how much he does for his team. Heck, he IS the team. Each year, James elevates his play and his ridiculous numbers in the playoffs, and expect the same from him this time around. He must play well for the Cavs to even have a chance...and if he does, they could easily win it. Butler has been dinged up lately but sat out the last couple games and will be ready to go. He competes like a lion every night and is really the pulse of the Washington team. The Wiz need him to do everything LeBron does - score, rebound, find the open man and get steals - but he doesn't have to do quite as much of it for the Wizards to be successful. Edge: Cavaliers

Power Forward: Antawn Jamison (21.4, 10.2, 1.5) v. Ben Wallace (4.8, 8.4, 1.5) -
This will be a very intriguing matchup with one of the best offensive and rebounding forwards in the game going up against one of the best defensive and rebounding forward/centers in the last decade. Big Ben should give Jamison some trouble when the Wizards have the ball, but with his unorthodox shots and his knack for getting his brand of flip-shots and runners up on the backboard, Antawn will get his points. Wallace isn't much of a threat on the offensive end, but Jamison has to box out the bigger man to prevent Cleveland from getting second-chance points. Edge: Wizards

Center: Brendan Haywood (10.6, 7.2, 0.9) v. Zydrunas Ilgauskas (14.1, 9.3, 1.4) -
Big Z killed the Wiz on the inside earlier this season and he could be the X-factor again in this series. Haywood has really raised his level of play on both ends since last season and he's going to have to play physical on the block with Ilgauskas and Wallace crashing the boards and James slashing to the hoop. If the Wizards can get double-digit rebounds and between 7 and 15 points from their big man, they'll be happy. Edge: Cavaliers

The Cavaliers restocked before the trade deadline, picking up Wallace, West, Wally Szczerbiak and Joe Smith. They also have Anderson Varejao on the inside and Damon Jones and Daniel "Boobie" Gibson to throw up threes on the perimeter. It's a nice group of guys but no one can match what the Wizards have coming off the pine pony in Gilbert Arenas. He changes the complexion of the game entirely with his speed and ability to pull up from outside or drive to the basket. He's looked great in the last week and a half and I expect him to play like the Gilbert of old in this series. But he still needs to play within himself and his new role. Arenas won't hold anything back, but the team chemistry has been great since his return and it would be a shame to throw that out so Gilbert can be the prime-time star he has been in the past. Washington also has very capable guys in Darius Songaila and Roger Mason (another potential X-factor) to go along with young-guns Andray Blatche and Nick Young. Edge: Wizards

Coaching: Eddie Jordan has done a tremendous job considering all the injuries this team has sustained to key players. He won't get coach of the year but should be up there on the ballot. Mike Brown has often struggled to find the best lineup and he hasn't really had to do much other than get the ball in his star's hands. Edge: Wizards

Series Prediction: I'm taking the Wizards in 6.
The series could very easily go 7 and it would probably be a fitting conclusion. Either way, it's going to be physical, the games are going to be close and I'm looking forward to all the trash talking and drama that comes with LeBron v. DeShawn/Gilbert. I'll be at Game 3 Thursday in D.C. and here's hoping Soulja Boy is court-side in a Locksmith jersey.

-- The Tar Heel

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