Monday, April 14, 2008

Hibachi Heating Up Just in Time for Playoffs

It was another adventure of a week for the Wizards as they knocked off the top seed in the East, got drilled in D-Town and then stormed back at home to beat Philly. This kind of up-way down-and way up again play has been the calling card of this team all season, but if you're a Wizards fan right now, you've got to feel good about the way this team is coming together with the postseason only two games away.

4/9 - Washington 109, Boston 95

First let's talk about the win against Boston on Wednesday. Oh, by the way, it was the third straight victory for the Wiz over the best team in basketball. Say what you will about Doc Rivers resting his troops - that's not what I'd call having KG, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen all on the floor in the fourth quarter - but how intriguing would a second round matchup with the Celts be? Talk about star power!

In only the second game since Gilbert Arenas' return that the Wizards had their entire Big Three on the floor, Antawn Jamison, Caron Butler and Agent Zero reminded fans why they were the highest scoring trio in the league last season before injuries struck. Jamison was stellar in his first game back from a sprained shoulder sustained in the loss to Milwaukee the night Gil returned.
AJ had 11 rebounds and a team-high 27 points including two on a vicious baseline dunk over Kevin Garnett. For a guy that would usually prefer to flip it in off the glass from his waist, dunking over one of the best defensive players in the game was a big-time statement.

This game had the feel of a playoff game - sell-out crowd, national television, and multiple all-stars on the floor including Arenas. The Hibachi had his best game back to that point with 13 points, three assists and four steals, giving the Wiz a big spark off the bench when Boston went to its reserves. He's not trying to do to much, which is very important because of his injury and the chemistry this team developed in his absence, but having someone with his motor and ability to catch fire out there has been big for Washington and will continue to be as they head into the playoffs.

4/11 - Detroit 102, Washington 74

In typical Wizards fashion, they followed up a big win with a complete stinker against the Pistons on Friday night. Jason Maxiell went nuts on a non-existent Washington post defense, dropping a career-high 28 on 11-of-13 shooting off the bench, and the Wizards shot a dismal 27.1 (23-85) percent from the field.

Somehow, Washington trailed by only five points at the break, but they were outscored 34-13 in the third quarter - including seven from Maxiell during that stretch.

After an impressive victory at home against the Pistons on March 23, this was a pretty troubling no-show for a team that had a lot more to play for than their hosts. The Wizards were flat and didn't show much fight in the second half, despite the fact that Detroit was giving plenty of time to its bench. Meanwhile, the Pistons - who had been sleep-walking through the final month of the season and had lost back-to-back contests to the Knicks and Sixers coming into this one - looked a lot more like the tough, defensive-minded Pistons we're used to seeing in April and May.

4/12 - Washington 109, Philadelphia 93

Gilbert Arenas might have returned to game action a week prior, but this game - against a team jockeying for playoff positioning with the Wizards - was Agent Zero's official "I'm baaaaaack" announcement to the rest of the league.

One night after getting throttled in the Rock City, Arenas had the sold-out Phone Booth rocking as he led the way in a 31-9 fourth quarter that saw the Wizards come-from-behind to secure the fifth seed (Toronto's loss yesterday made it official) and dash Philly's hopes of anything higher than the sixth spot.

With Caron Butler on the sideline with a bruised right knee, Arenas scored 12 of his 20 points in the final period including his own 7-0 run to give Washington the lead for good. Gil shot 7-for-14 from the field and orchestrated the offense brilliantly with five assists in 25 minutes of action. He looked sharp in all facets, nailing his patented long jumper (4-for-9 from three) and setting up teammates with precision passes. I think this is the Gilbert we're going to see from here on out this season (knock on wood). He's focused (still not talking to the media), motivated and accepting of his role as the best sixth man in the game.

The Sixers - one of the hottest teams in the league since the All-Star break - had no answer for Gil and Washington's efficient offense in the second half, falling apart from the perimeter because they couldn't force turnovers and missed shots to generate their fast-break offense.

Let's hope the Wiz can continue to get this kind of effort from Arenas and Jamison (just another ho hum 25 and 13) and rest Caron these last two games so he's ready to go for Game 1 of their series against...yup...Cleveland.


“It’s just letting the young fellows know I still got it. I joke with them all the time. For me, it was an aggressive move going to the basket, and I was able to find it.” -- Jamison on his dunk over KG

“He’s getting his mojo back. He’s pushing the ball up fast, doing his moves like he usually does. I was just glad to see him out there looking like the old Gilbert.” -- DeShawn Stevenson on Gilbert's performance against Philly

The Playoff Picture

With Washington's win against Philadelphia on Saturday and Toronto's loss to Detroit yesterday, the Wizards have locked up the fifth seed. That means for the third year in a row, they'll take on their buddies LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

This was pretty much inevitable. Not just because the Wizards and Cavs failed to get their acts together all season and make a dent into the upper echelon of the conference, but also because of the drama, the recent history and the smack talk between King James and the Locksmith. With Gilbert and Caron back, this series will have all the star power that last season's sweep lacked, and all the drama of a playoff matchup between two teams that frankly hate each other's guys.

What's not to love?

The two teams split their season series with both winning twice at home. But don't forget, the Wiz were without Arenas four all four of those games, James missed the first meeting (a Wasington win at home) and Butler missed the third (a one-point loss in Cleveland).

Next Up

Indiana Pacers (35-45) at Washington Wizards (42-38)
Tonight, Monday, April 14 - 7pm
Verizon Center

The Wizards face a desperate Pacers team in need of two wins and serious help to steal the final playoff spot in the East in their home finale tonight at the Phone Booth.

You can bet Indiana will come out firing, knowing that they have to get this one to even have a chance. It should be another great, playoff-type atmosphere in D.C. and another opportunity for Eddie Jordan to work on fine-tuning his rotation and on-court pairings before the playoffs.

Caron Butler will probably sit this one out as he continues to rest that knee, but even though the Wiz have their spot locked up, I don't expect them to mail this one in. They've won four of five and want to keep playing solid basketball and carry this momentum into the Cleveland series.

The Wizards close out their regular season schedule Wednesday at Orlando.

All photos AP/Getty by way of Yahoo!

-- The Tar Heel

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