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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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Wiz Close Out Regular Season in Orlando

Washington Wizards (43-38) at Orlando Magic (51-30)
Tonight, Wednesday, April 16 - 7pm
Amway Arena

The Wizards travel down to Disney World tonight to wrap up the regular season against the team that ran away with the Southeast Division title. Orlando (No. 3) and Washington (No. 5) are both locked into their playoff seeds so expect to see a lot of reserves getting plenty of court time in this one.

Speaking of bench players, Roger Mason went bonkers on Monday with 31 in Washington's 117-110 victory over Indiana in the home finale. Mason - who apparently has a new nickname - has been very productive for the Wiz off the bench this season, draining threes and playing a steady back up point role when Antonio Daniels was dinged up. I was a little concerned that Mason would be the main guy who lost minutes when Gilbert Arenas returned, but with performances like this, there's no doubt he'll find his way onto the floor in the playoffs. They guy is a savvy, smart veteran basketball player and whether he's the 6th man or the 10th man on the roster, he's going to give you quality minutes.

As for tonight's game, it's a toss up. The Wiz dropped both meetings at the Phone Booth and then smothered Dwight Howard to win in Orlando. I'm hoping the same doesn't happen this time because I could use some blocks and boards from Superman on the last day of fantasy basketball championship week, however, should Washington prevail, they would finish the season a perfect 8-0 on the road against divisional opponents.

-- The Tar Heel
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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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Flyers shut out Caps; tie series

Capitals 0, Flyers 2

After the Capitals' 5-4 comeback win in Game 1 of this series the Flyers were admonished for only playing forty minutes of a sixty minute game. While that is indeed not an admirable characteristic, it's not really much better to adopt logic that the Capitals seem to have: that it's okay to only play a good twenty minutes as long they're the last twenty. The Capitals didn't get anything going Sunday afternoon until the opening minutes of the third period and even then it wasn't nearly enough to pull out a win. However, despite this I don't think the Capitals' effort was as poor as it seemed on the surface.

The story of yesterday's game was individual efforts: the Capitals were done in by mistakes by defensemen John Erskine and Mike Green and stymied offensively by the individual effort of Martin Brion, who made 24 saves. Without Erskine getting caught in front of R.J. Umberger and Green making a bad turnover, the Flyers don't get to dictate the rest of the game and without the efforts of Biron, the Caps probably net a pair. It's not that there aren't adjustments needed and it's not as if the Capitals deserved to win this game. I just think it wasn't as one-sided as it looked.

Regardless of that the Capitals did lose which means, for now at least, they've squandered their home ice advantage. The upcoming game in Philadelphia on Tuesday could end up being the make-or-break one for the Capitals. On the one hand they've still only lost back-to-back games once under Bruce Boudreau and that took some poor officiating and Nicklas Backstrom scoring into his own net to happen and the last time the Capitals lost they responded by reeling off an eight game winning streak. On the other hand, none of the games they played during that stretch were as difficult as the one on Tuesday is likely to be.

Quick Hits

  • I usually like the NBC broadcast team but they were definitely off today: it only 13 seconds for someone to mispronounce Shaone Morrisonn's name, Pierre Mcguire estimated that half the fans in attendance were rooting for the Flyers and Ed Olczyk had a number of errors: calling Scott Hartnell's goaltender interference penalty "incidental contact" despite that Hartnell, who was not pushed, bowled over Cristobal Huet well into the blue paint, adamantly calling a phantom elbow on Backstom and saying the the Flyers exploited the the blocker of Huet on the Flyers' second goal, a play on which Huet had no chance.

  • Show me a Capitals fan who was surprised it was John Erskine who got beat on the Flyers first goal and I'll show you a fan who doesn't know who John Erskine is.

  • Mike Green's played six period of playoff hockey. One was stellar, five have been terrible.

  • Sunday's game wasn't nearly as physical as Friday's: total hits decreased from 76 to 57.

  • The Capitals had 18 giveaways. The Flyers had 7.

  • Of the Capitals 18 giveaways, nine were by defensemen. The only Washington defenseman who did not have a giveaway was Shaone Morrisonn.

All photos AP/Getty by way of Yahoo!
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Sunday, April 13, 2008

Nationals Stop Their Slide at 9

I must first apologize for my neglect of the Washington Nationals. My dereliction of duty has produced a back-log of much needed media and explanation of why and how the Washington Nationals are falling so far after starting the season 3-0. First, I will discuss their most recent win that took place on Sunday 13th, and why they were able to win despite their mistakes.
The Nationals got another strong start out of pitcher Tim Redding who has pitched very confidently in each of his three starts this year. Redding doesn't overpower anyone and rarely hits over 90 mph on the radar gun, but he mixes up his speeds very well and uses the defense behind him to get the job done. In this particular game, Redding escaped what would have been critical innings through a couple of key double plays.
The Bullpen took over and also played very well against a surprisingly potent Atlanta team. King, Ayala, Cordero and Rauch pitched four innings only giving up one run en route to the Nationals win. A stat that I do find disconcerting is the number of walks given up by the Nationals pitching staff. Combined they allowed seven base runners to get on base through walks. The Nationals are not a flawless team, and cannot rely on raw talent to overpower hitters. When they are putting this many free base runners on base it raises the potential for big innings.

The Nationals also jumped on the Braves pitching mistakes early. Glavine was weak from the first pitch only hitting around 80 mph on the gun and the Nationals were able to pick up two runs in the first inning at his expense. The next Braves pitcher Jeff Bennett was also shaky walking two base runners home and hitting Lo Duca, who would later score. However, the Nationals were unable to put the game away. There were multiple times during the game where a key hit would have put the game out of reach instead of the 5-4 nail biter that it was. Much of the blame is put on Wily Mo Pena who with the bases loaded grounded into a double play, and struck out looking on consecutive at bats. However, it has been a consistent theme throughout the Nationals season that they become complacent and fade after the first couple of innings.

Startling Season Long Trends:

Bottom line the reason for the nine game skid was a lack of fundamental baseball.

Game 1 of the Skid = Ugly extra inning game in which the Nationals left 24 runners on base, struck out 7 times as a team and saw Colome walk in the winning run in the bottom of the tenth inning

Game 2 of the Skid = Against the rag tag relief core of the St. Louis Cardinals the Nationals again left 25 runners on base, failed to capitalize on 2 Cardinal errors and saw starting pitcher Odalis Perez throw only 56 of his 103 pitches for strikes.

Game 3 of the Skid = Ran into a very good outing from opposing ace Adam Wainwright who pitched 8 innings and scattered all 8 of the Nationals hits.

Game 4 of the Skid = Offensive futility leads the Nationals to only 5 hits and 0 runs against Kyle Lohse who sports a 4.77 era.

Game 5 of the Skid = Washington made two costly errors and wasted a good outing from Tim Redding, accounting for 6 unearned runs. They also left 20 runners on base and struck out 9 times.

Game 6 of the Skid = Marlins' first baseman Mike Jacobs hits two homeruns and pummels the Nationals 10-4

Game 7 of the Skid = The Nationals play solid baseball but come up short. Nationals' pitchers strike out 10, walk 1. Nationals' batters only leave 10 on base, get 7 hits and only strike out twice.
Game 8 of the Skid = Tim Hudson pitches an incredible game against the Nationals. Matt Chico tries to keep up but Hudson was too sharp.

Game 9 of the Skid = The Nationals leave 19 runners on base and starting pitcher John Lannan walked 4 after only throwing 48 of his 85 pitches for strikes.

When the Nationals win ball games they play solid defense and most importantly throw strikes. They are not offensive juggernauts but will need to produce at a better pace to compete against the offensive teams of the NL East. In their 9 game skid they certainly shouldn't have won all of them, but had the potential to win at least four of those nine games if they had taken care of who they are as a team. The Nationals pitchers currently sport a 4.96 ERA a 1.49 WHIP and a .275 BAA, while the Nationals hitters are only scoring 3.83 runs a game, hitting .230 and have struck out 28 more times then they have walked. (for you sabermetrics geeks, their OPS is .662, also not good)

Simply put, they are not very good right now across the board and will continue to lose while their players are playing mediocre. Good teams will take care of the games they should win and that is what the Nationals need to focus on. They shouldn't worry about the losses to stud aces like Tim Hudson or John Smoltz or the blow out games against the heavy hitting Marlins, but the games in which they are more than capable of winning they have to bear down and get the job done.

- The Hokie

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