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A Sweeping Victory
WASHINGTON — Wizards’ All-Star Gilbert Arenas usually leaves the court at Verizon Center with a quick jog after tossing his jersey into the stands. On Monday night, a limping Arenas left the court in street clothes, after stopping to sign a few autographs for nearby fans who came to cheer on their team for what everyone knew would be the last time this season.
The second-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers swept the seventh-seeded Wizards on Monday night to move on to the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, where they will play the winner of the series between the New Jersey Nets and the Toronto Raptors.
Without Arenas and Caron Butler, the Wizards were simply outmatched by a better team. Forward Antawn Jamison and point guard Antonio Daniels provided veteran leadership, played exhaustive minutes, and gave their depleted squad everything they had, but in the end, it wasn’t close to being enough.
So much for the promise of Wizards-Cavaliers Part II. The true playoff rematch between these two budding rivals, and the personal rematch between Agent Zero and King James will have to wait at least one more year.
“These guys made us work for everything we got. It was not an easy series,” said Cavaliers center Zydrunas Ilgauskas. In the four game sweep, only game one, which Cleveland won 97-82, was a double digit victory.
The Cavaliers completed the first series sweep of their playoff career, but defeating an opponent at half strength in round one wasn’t exactly a cause for celebration.
“Last year, it was all about making the playoffs. We’ve got bigger and better things to do now. We’re about winning a championship,” said LeBron James. “Getting the sweep raises our confidence and allows us to get a little bit of rest.”
The Wizards probably lost their best chance to steal a game on Saturday, the first home game of the series, which they lost by a mere six points, 98-92. The crowd began that day in an energized fashion, as Butler and Arenas entered the court by coming down a red carpeted staircase to participate in the pre-game ceremonies.
During the injury plagued playoff run, Butler, out with a broken right hand, was a regular presence on the bench, joining the Wizards huddle during every time out, cheering his team on at every opportunity.
Arenas, who is recovering from left knee surgery, sat behind the bench for the final two home games. Both players admitted that it killed them not to be out on the court, so much so that the sparkling effervescent Arenas didn’t even speak to the media until Saturday.
“It’s not about me,” was Arenas’ repeated response to attempts to talk to him during the first two games. But on Saturday, at a pre-game press conference, Arenas was all smiles.
“I finally have some good news,” he said about his decision to break his silence.
“Everyone knows that this is the takeover year and I took over a lot of stuff. I surprised myself. I want to finish the season by saying Agent Zero is on the cover of NBA Live 2008.”
Known for playing video games for hours on end, his habit helps quell the boredom while he’s rehabilitating his knee. “ This is wonderful, coming from where I came from, a second round pick and having to fight all my career, and now I made the cover of a video game. The last person who was on the cover of NBA Live won the NBA title. Hopefully, that works the same here,” Arenas said.
Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade was on the cover of NBA Live in 2006, the year the Heat won the NBA title. Houston Rockets forward Tracy McGrady made the cover in 2007. But Arenas’ thoughts were not far from his team, and the irony of facing Cleveland in the first round for the second straight year.
“That was the most hurtful part about being injured. We re playing the same team that put us out in the first round last year and I can’t do anything about it. I can’t go out there and hit big shots, I can’t help the team out. All I can do is be there in spirit.”
Of course, Arenas did come up with his own solution.
“They could sit me in the corner. I can’t run, I can barely walk. But I can still shoot threes,” Arenas said. It’s not the worst idea Agent Zero ever came up with.
It may not have been quite the same as Gilbertology, but Daniels did his best to make up for what was missing, both on the court and off.
“I did my best to keep a positive attitude in this locker room, regardless of the situation and regardless of the circumstances. You can’t measure heart, and there is a lot of it on this team. We fought with all we had,” Daniels said after Game Four.
Wizards head coach Eddie Jordan, perhaps with an eye toward next season, gave heavy minutes to his young core of Andray Blatche, Roger Mason and Donnell Taylor in the final game, all of whom performed well.
“I thought our young guys were very good. I was hesitant to use them earlier in the series because of their inexperience and I thought that even with the short rotation we had, our veterans were playing a little bit below average. I was a little bit afraid of the unexpected from the young guys, but tonight was a pleasant surprise,” Jordan said.
As for his veterans playing below average, both DeShawn Stevenson and Jarvis Hayes had difficulty finding their shots, while inconsistent center Brendan Haywood, who played close to 10 minutes with no stats save one foul in game three, spent game four on the bench.
The 7-foot center is said to be in Jordan’s doghouse, his future status not helped by the fact that Haywood left the bench several seconds before then end of the game.
The nameplate above his locker was conspicuously missing after the game, giving rise to the speculation that come next season, the disgruntled Haywood just might be conspicuously missing from this team.
But despite the Haywood mini-drama, the remainder of the Wizards team remains a strong core group, one which Wizards captain Jamison remains proud of.
“A lot of people counted us out, but guys kept their heads high, guys went out there and played hard and it just shows the character of this team and just how important it is for us just to be out there doing something that we love to do,” said the classy Jamison, whose monster playoff series and tireless effort should finally put to rest the local trade rumors. Daniels provided an assist, but Jamison literally put this team on his back.
Asked the inevitable Haywood question, Jamison said the situation would be addressed in-house and would not be a distraction next year.
If anything can be learned from this snake bitten end to a promising season, without Arenas and Butler, the Wizards had a chance to gain some valuable knowledge about the rest of their squad, judging by who stepped up, and perhaps who needs to step out, and giving a healthy Wizards team a chance to make some noise next year as legitimate contenders in a still wide open Eastern Conference.