Monday, April 21, 2008

Deja Vu All Over Again

Game 1: Cleveland 93, Washington 86

After weeks of trash talk leading up to Game 1 between the Wizards and Cavaliers, it doesn't look like much has changed in the last two years. With a healthy big three on the floor for the Wiz and a few new faces here and there on both teams, the first game in this best of seven series played out true to the form set back in 2006.

The two teams battled back in forth in Cleveland in a competitive, physical playoff game. Washington appeared to have the upper hand early in the fourth quarter with a two-point lead and the Cavs in the penalty with 7:30 left. But that's when the best player on the floor took over, just as he did last April...and the April before that.

The Wizards - who could have (and should have) put themselves in a position to win by driving to the rim and getting to the free throw line - settled for outside shots. They missed
three-pointers and long jumpers from all over the floor and LeBron James took advantage. He drove to the rack on back-to-back possessions to give the Cavs the lead. Gilbert Arenas tried to do the same for the Wizards but turned the ball over in the lane and then threw up a wild shot that landed in a Cleveland rebounders' mits and pretty much sealed the game.

Before those final deciding minutes, Antawn
Jamison had more than outplayed James. He was getting to the basket for his patented flip shots and runners, rebounding like Ben Wallace circa 2000 and even picked up a technical for defending a teammate (and fellow Tar Heel) when Brendan Haywood and LeBron got in a brief scuffle at mid-court. Sadly, it was Jamison who started forcing shots in that critical stretch - including a long jumper followed by two bricked open threes on consecutive possessions - to let Cleveland take control.

The Wizards were right there, but as was the case in 2006, they just could not seal the deal.
Now they find themselves in a similar situation. Down 0-1 with a second game to come in Cleveland - one which they desperately need. It's not quite a must-win, but psychologically, with how inept the Wizards have been at winning at the 'Q', essentially it is just that.

Game 2
Washington Wizards at Cleveland Cavaliers
Tonight, Monday, April 21 - 7pm

Quicken Loans Arena

The game-plan was there on Saturday. The Wizards limited LeBron James early on, got scoring from Jamison (23), Caron Butler (14) and even Brendan Haywood (15). Gilbert Arenas was his old, flashy self, scoring 24 in just under 28 minutes and drilling a 30-footer just before the first quarter buzzer. They held the Cavs to under 40 percent shooting (39.5) and limited the damage behind the arc (5-19). With those stats, even factoring in LeBron's 32 points, you have to figure the Wizards come out on top.

But the areas where Cleveland edged Washington, proved key and costly. The Cavs out-rebounded the Wiz 43-42 (we know the Wizards almost never win when they lose the battle of the boards), had eight more assists (24-16) and most importantly, out-shot the boys in gold 37-17. You're never going to win a game with that kind of discrepancy at the line.

With a 20-free throw difference, you might think the referees were to blame. Hardly the case. With just under eight minutes remaining and the Wizards leading, the Cavs were already in the bonus - meaning any foul would result in two free throws for Washington. But after playing aggressive basketball all afternoon, it was then, at the worst time possible, that the Wizards got tentative and started settling for jump shots. Cleveland out-scored Washington 28-14 - more than enough to make up the seven point winning margin.

The plan for the Wizards tonight has got to be - get to the rim, get to the free throw line and get easy points. They've got to keep up the intensity, keep giving good hard fouls to any Cavaliers - particularly James - willing to drive to the basket, and keep crashing the boards.
I like the Wizards to win this game because they clearly have more talent on the floor and more scoring options.

The main question is can they play a full 48 minutes of aggressive, intelligent basketball and get over the psychological advantage that LeBron and the city of Cleveland continue to hold over their heads.

Now is the time. If they lose this game, I think you can pretty much kiss the series goodbye. Eddie Jordan knows this, and I think you'll see the inspired squad you saw for three and a half quarters on Saturday get it done tonight.

All photos AP/Getty by way of Yahoo!

-- The Tar Heel

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