For the third year in a row, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Washington Wizards will meet in the first round of the playoffs. If playoff games were won by words alone, then the Wizards would already have a 1-0 lead. DeShawn Stevenson said a month ago that LeBron James is “overrated.” Gilbert Arenas recently declared, “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.”
The Cavs beat the Wizards in six games in the 2006 playoffs and swept an injury-depleted Wizards team in 2007. The teams split their four regular season games this year. So, on the surface it would seem like there is a lot of history to examine about this matchup but the reality is that these teams have never met-at least, they have never met as they are currently constructed.
Arenas missed most of this season due to injury and did not face the Cavaliers at all. The first time the teams played each other this season, the Wizards won 105-86 against a Cleveland team that was missing an injured LeBron James. In their second meeting, the Cavaliers routed the Wizards 121-85. A month later, Cleveland traded away six players, including starters Larry Hughes and Drew Gooden. Right after Cleveland made the big trade but before the newly acquired players joined the team, the Cavaliers beat the Wizards 90-89. Butler missed that game, while Cleveland only dressed eight players, including two who had just been called up from the NBA Developmental League. Washington won the final regular season meeting, 101-99; Cleveland was without the services of starting center Zydrunas Ilgauskas and reserve sharpshooter Daniel Gibson.
Looking back further, injuries sidelined Washington All-Stars Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler during the 2007 playoffs. Stevenson, who leads the Wizards this season in three pointers made, shot 3-19 from three point range versus the Cavaliers in last year’s playoffs and he was not a member of the 2006 team. Never has that old cliché about “throwing out the records when these teams meet” been more valid. The 2006 playoff series, the 2007 playoff series and the four 2007-08 regular season games provide very little useful information in terms of predicting what will happen now; the 2008 playoff series between Cleveland and Washington can only be evaluated based on speculation about how certain key matchups will unfold.
Nevertheless, a lot of people are sure to look back to the 2006 series for clues because both teams were at full strength then (even though they each have altered their main rotations since that time). The 2006 series was characterized by two things: close games and the showdown between James and Arenas. The Cavaliers won three games by one point each, including two in overtime. James averaged 35.7 ppg, 7.5 rpg and 5.7 apg, while Arenas averaged 34.0 ppg, 5.5 rpg and 5.3 apg. Although their numbers were similar, the big difference is that James made the key plays at the end of several games and Arenas did not: James delivered game-winning layups in games three and five and near the end of game six he patted Arenas on the chest at the free throw line and told Arenas that if he missed his two free throws then the Wizards would lose. Arenas missed them both and on the next possession a double-teamed James passed to Hughes who swung the ball to Damon Jones for the game-winning, series clinching three pointer.
Several of the games in the 2006 series could have gone either way, which is perhaps why Arenas said that it is hard to beat a team in the playoffs three years in a row; this time around those close decisions could go in favor of the Wizards. There are two ways of thinking about that, though: one is to say that the Cavaliers were fortunate to win those games; the other is to say that the Cavaliers won all of the close games because they have a great finisher in James and that he will make sure that they continue to win more close games than they lose.
Arenas has had some good late season moments since coming back from knee surgery but so far he is playing limited minutes in a reserve role; Arenas has said that he is willing to continue to come off of the bench during the playoffs so as to not disrupt team chemistry but I would not be surprised if at some point in the first round-possibly in game three at Washington-Arenas rejoins the starting unit. The Wizards survived-and at times thrived-during this season despite Arenas’ absence. Now that he is back in the fold, the Wizards have three All-Stars plus a roster full of young players who received a lot of opportunities to perform while Arenas and Butler missed games due to injuries. The Wizards won the season series against the league-leading Boston Celtics 3-1, so they understandably believe that they are more than equipped to take out the Cavaliers.
The Cavaliers’ season began with turmoil and it ended with uncertainty. The early season holdouts of Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic contributed to the team’s 9-11 start. After Varejao returned to action, the Cavaliers went 15-8 before he sprained his ankle and missed 14 of the next 15 games, during which time the Cavs went 8-7. James, Hughes and other players also missed games due to injuries at various times. The interesting thing is that when the Cavaliers started James, Gooden, Ilgauskas, Pavlovic and Hughes–the quintet that led the team to the 2007 Finals–they went 11-2. Nevertheless, Cavaliers General Manager Danny Ferry decided to hit the reboot button, jettisoning Gooden, Hughes and four other players in exchange for Ben Wallace, Joe Smith, Delonte West and Wally Szczerbiak. The four new players were expected to provide rebounding (Wallace and Smith), inside scoring (Smith), outside shooting (Szczerbiak) and consistent point guard play (West). Smith and West have been solid, but Wallace has been plagued by back spasms and looks like a shell of the player who won four Defensive Player of the Year awards, while Szczerbiak has yet to locate his shooting touch. The trade has hardly been a smashing success to this point and, considering the ages of the players who are involved, it only makes sense if it works in the short term.
Cleveland’s recipe for playoff success last year was the all-around brilliance of James supplemented by great team defense and rebounding. James has had a tremendous season and the Cavs rank first in the league in rebounding differential but since last season their ppg differential has eroded from +3.9 (seventh in the league) to -0.4 (16th in the league). They scored 96.8 ppg last season and 96.4 ppg this season, so most of the slippage has obviously taken place at the defensive end of the court.
Although the Cavaliers do not look like a team that is about to make an extended playoff run, their won-loss record is only slightly worse than last season’s despite all of the injuries and having to adjust to a total roster makeover. Two major keys for the Cavaliers’ playoff chances will be health and defensive intensity. Pavlovic will miss at least the first round due to an ankle sprain. Wallace’s back is balky and James has also been battling back spasms recently. The Cavs obviously cannot afford to lose James but they also will not likely be able to survive any more injuries to their top seven players. Assuming that their health stays intact, the Cavaliers must regain their defensive focus and get those extra two to three stops a game that will boost their ppg differential back into positive territory.
The game plan for the Wizards is two-fold: on offense they need to feature teamwork and ball movement, involving several players in the attack; on defense they must keep James reasonably close to his season averages, which will then force other players to make shots and make plays. During the 2007 Finals, the Spurs were able to build a wall around the paint, forcing James to either pass the ball or shoot contested jump shots. Not too many other teams have the necessary personnel and mindset to play that kind of defense for an entire series. Therefore, even though the Cavaliers have hardly looked like world beaters since the big trade, I believe that their defense and rebounding combined with James’ high productivity will be enough to eliminate the Wizards.
Arenas and Stephenson have both publicly indicated that they look forward to facing the Cavs but as Tom Brady put it during the New England Patriots’ 16-0 season, “Well done is better than well said.” Unless Arenas, Stephenson and their teammates do well on the court all that will be said after the series is that their words were meaningless. Before the 2006 Cleveland-Washington showdown, I wrote that the series “may very well be tied 2-2 after four games. In that case, James will produce a big game at home in the always pivotal fifth game and the Cavs will win a close game six in Washington to advance to the second round.” Although a lot of things have changed for both teams in the past two years, I expect a similar pattern to happen this time around: a close series that starts out 2-2 will end up with a Cleveland victory in six games.
David Friedman is a freelance writer specializing in professional basketball. His work has been published in several magazines, including Hoop, Lindy’s Pro Basketball, Basketball Times and Basketball Digest. He has also contributed to NBCSports.com, HoopsHype.com and ProBasketballNews.com and his articles are frequently reprinted at Legends of Basketball, the official website of the National Basketball Retired Players Association (NBRPA). Friedman wrote the chapter about the NBA in the 1970s for the anthology Basketball in America (Haworth Press, 2005). Check out his basketball blog: 20 Second Timeout