The good news for the Washington Wizards is they successfully bounced back from the 30 point loss on Sunday and defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers, 108-72 on their home floor. DeShawn Stevenson led the team with 19 points and Caron Butler contributed 17. LeBron James, who had been dominant in the first two games, was held to a quiet 22 points.
The bad news for Washington is that Gilbert Arenas, who was in the starting lineup for the first time since November, re-injured the very same knee that caused him to miss 66 games this season. But the dirty little secret that no one is talking about, is that the Wizards don’t need him. Not this year anyway. Last season, and even at the start of this one, the team revolved around Arenas. His job was to set the tone early with his shot, force the opponent to guard him so he could dish to other teammates in the middle of the game, and then, at the end, it was Agent Zero time. Arenas would make shot after impossible shot and the Wizards were able to win …at least up to a certain point.
The problem with that style of play is that other teammates were not getting in any type of rhythm. They were guilty of standing around, hoping that Arenas would bail them out, and this lackadaisical attitude carried over to the defensive end of the floor. When Arenas’ teammates weren’t getting the ball on the offensive end, they were much less inclined to work on defense, and to make matters worse, Agent Zero was more of a gambler than he was a defender. As a result, the Wizards were labeled as a soft defensive team that could not get a stop when it really counted.
Once Arenas got hurt, the leaders who emerged on the team were Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler. These two players were unaccustomed to being the number one option in the past, so by nature they were very much team players. Jamison scored and grabbed rebound after rebound on the defensive side of the ball, and was one of the four players to average 20 and 10 in the NBA. Butler earned the name “Tough Juice” for his hard-nosed play on the both ends of the floor. Role players like the aforementioned Stevenson, Andray Blatche and Roger Mason were able to see growth in their game, because they now got the ball in their sweet spots more often and they were able to convert.
On the defensive end of the floor, the Wizards suddenly became a team that hustled. The rest of the team was forced to play hard nosed defense, because Butler and Jamison were doing that, and getting them the ball every night. Coach Eddie Jordan was now able to add and subtract playing time for the role players based on their defense or lack thereof. The Wizards successfully stuck to this formula, finished fifth in the East, made the playoffs and earned a date with this Cleveland Cavaliers team.
So what does any of this have to do with this Cleveland series? The first two games of this Cleveland series, Arenas was relatively healthy and back in the rotation, and even though he didn’t start either game, he was on the floor for a significant amount of time. His presence hurt the team in two ways. One, because he still wasn’t 100 per cent healthy, he wasn’t able to play effective defense on the perimeter, so he was often matched up against Wally Szczerbiak. Not only could he not guard his match, but this threw the rest of the Wizards defense out of sync. And two, he was so eager to help the team and prove he wasn’t hurt, that he tried too hard and jacked up quick and sometimes very bad shots. A cynic would say that he was shooting so much, to insure that he would still earn a big paycheck in free agency this summer when he opts out of his contract. Either way, despite occasional flashes of defensive brilliance, the Wizards reverted to the days of old. In game one, their defense broke down in the second half and Lebron James repeatedly came down the middle of the paint. In game two, the Wizards never showed up defensively and they gave up 116 points.
At the start of game three, Arenas found himself back in the starting lineup, and mainly played the role of facilitator. He took a few shots here and there, but he was mostly looking to set up his teammates, and he did so successfully. The team seemed to have a bit of a boost on both ends of the floor, but especially on defense; however, Cleveland was able to hang around and keep the game close. When Arenas went out of the game for an extended rest, and eventually for good with a knee injury, the Wizards instantly reverted back to that winning formula that landed them in the playoffs in the first place. Their defense forced Cleveland into 23 turnovers, Lebron was constantly doubled team and forced to pass, and Butler and Jamison were thrust back into their familiar leadership roles. Even Deshawn “Now you see me, now you don’t” Stevenson got into the mix by hitting big three-pointers in the second half. This was the team that led Stevenson to believe that his team was good, and Lebron James was overrated. This was the team that had most experts picking the Washington Wizards to defeat the Cavaliers in a seven-game series.
Now heading into game four, the talk will be, “How soon can Arenas come back?” or “How much playing time will he get,” and I’m sure Arenas himself will be leading those discussions, pleading with Coach Jordan to let him play in some capacity. At that point Jordan should look at the final score of game three, look at the total effort of his team, and then politely tell Agent Zero that he’s out of service until further notice.
A controversy may be born, but a victory over Cleveland just might follow.
Photo Credit: ICON SMI