Facing Cavs' James hikes hype for Wizards

pro basketball


WASHINGTON -- A year ago, the fourth-seeded Chicago Bulls and fifth-seeded Washington Wizards were treated as playoff afterthoughts, postseason neophytes whose rosters were filled with young and mostly anonymous players.

There is certainly more interest in this season's opening-round series between the fourth-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers and fifth-seeded Wizards, which starts tomorrow in Cleveland with a nationally televised game rather than one on little-watched NBA TV.

What a difference one player - LeBron James of the Cavaliers - makes in improving the profile of the Wizards going into the 2006 playoffs. Though Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas is certainly now a recognizable name, James' playoff debut is getting most of the hype.

"This is going to be a fun series, up and down, the third- and fourth-[leading] scorers going up against each other, [former Wizard] Larry Hughes, it's going to be a fun, interesting matchup," Arenas said yesterday after practice at Verizon Center.

As Arenas, who finished just behind James on the NBA's scoring list, received his playoff indoctrination last season in a six-game victory over the Bulls and a four-game sweep by the Miami Heat, James will be leading the Cavaliers into their first playoff appearance in eight years.

"He didn't have any jitterbugs in the first game he played in the NBA, so I don't think he'll have any jitterbugs in his first playoff game," Arenas said.

Wizards coach Eddie Jordan is hoping that his team got its playoff jitters out a year ago, when Washington lost the first two on the road in Chicago before winning four straight. To that end, Jordan and his staff started watching tape at 6 a.m. yesterday after returning from Detroit at 2.

"We don't expect to go 0-2," Jordan said. "I'm not even thinking about that. We kind of forgot about last year. It's been a different year, with its own personality, a different team. I know the playoff experience helps; I don't know how much it helps."

Washington (42-40) has taken three of four games from Cleveland (50-32) this season, including a playoff-clinching victory Sunday in which James came out late in the third quarter and other key Cavaliers sat out the fourth.

In Cleveland's defense, the Cavaliers have not played at full strength against the Wizards since their first meeting and only victory over Washington this season. Hughes, who signed with Cleveland as a free agent last summer, played in the first game against the Wizards and the last game between missing 45 games with a broken finger.

Told earlier this week that the Wizards wanted to clinch the fifth seed so they could face the Cavaliers, first-year Cleveland coach Mike Brown said, "I guess I'd want to play us, too."

Mostly, the Wizards wanted the fifth seed to avoid playing any of the top three teams.

"It wasn't like we want the Cavs; we didn't want those real, real dominant teams. Detroit and Miami and New Jersey have been playing well," Jordan said. "This is by no means calling out the Cavs like we want them because of what we did in the regular season. The Cavs have won 50 games and have shown that they're really, really good."

What the Wizards must do is prevent the Cavaliers from running out to an early lead and getting the fans at Quicken Loans Arena fired up. Cleveland has won 11 straight games at home, and was 31-10 there during the regular season.

To succeed, the Wizards have to slow James, who after scoring 37 points on 15-for-23 shooting in the first meeting this season, averaged 20 points on 21-for-60 shooting in the next three. It will be interesting to see if James, 21, gets his share of calls.

As much as the Wizards will have to concern themselves with James, they likely also will concentrate on Hughes, who when healthy is one of the league's top defensive guards. Arenas is looking forward to his matchup with his former teammate and close friend.

"I'm going to call him, talk a little trash and get it all hyped and riled up," Arenas said jokingly.

Not that this series, thanks to one player, needs any more hype.


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