- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 25, 2005

CLEVELAND — Big deficit … so what? Perhaps the next step in the evolution of NBA players leading the opposing team … who cares?

That was the Washington Wizards’ attitude as they moved 10 games above .500 last night in Cleveland, avenging an earlier rout by the Cavaliers and LeBron James with a 106-97 comeback win in front of 17,002 stunned fans at Gund Arena.

In Cleveland, the fans are coming out to this one-time basketball wasteland to watch their team — and more specifically James — compete with the NBA’s best. Before the Wizards came to town, Cleveland had the second-best home record in the league (14-3), so no doubt they were expecting James — who had compiled two triple-doubles in his last three games — to help squash the Wizards, who lost to the Cavaliers by 31 points with Larry Hughes in the lineup back in November.

But the Wizards (25-15) ruined that scenario in the second half, shaking off a 30-point first half to respond with 76 second-half points and a smothering defense that left Cleveland (24-16) bewildered and dismayed.

The Wizards matched their win total for all of last season with 42 yet to play. They have won nine of their last 11 games.

Gilbert Arenas led Washington with 30 points, marking the eighth time this season he has reached that barrier. Arenas was 13-for-16 from the free-throw line; the Wizards were 39-for-49 from the line as a team.

James led the Cavs with 31 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists.

“I take it personal; he is the NBA right now,” Arenas said of facing off with James, named the Eastern Conference Player of the Week yesterday afternoon. “You have to come to play or he will embarrass you.”

The Wizards looked as if they might be embarrassed here again, making just two of their first 18 shots from the field and falling behind 22-8 in the first quarter. And in the second they trailed by 17 points with less than five minutes left before intermission.

But as sluggish as the Wizards were in the first half, they were just as energetic and frenetic in the second. On the way to placing six players in double figures, Washington transformed from a bunch of stumble bums who made just 25.7 percent (nine of 35) in the first half to a group of marksmen connecting on 56.8 percent (21 of 37) in the second half.

“I think our guys have grasped it that we’re never out of the game because of the way we get to the basket. We can make 3s and we can create turnovers,” Wizards coach Eddie Jordan said. “That’s the recipe for making comebacks and we’ve got it right now.”

The Wizards began the third quarter making nine of their first 10 shots from the field. Another flurry came at the start of the fourth quarter, which began with Cleveland leading 73-68.

Washington began the final quarter with a 20-7 run capped by Anthony Peeler’s three free throws with 5:35 remaining.

Peeler was as crucial to the Wizards’ success last night as anyone, including Arenas. He scored all 14 of his points in the fourth quarter, when he was 3-for-4 from behind the 3-point line and 5-for-5 at the free-throw line.

Peeler, who also played clutch defense on James late in the game, was 0-for-4 from the field in the first half.

“I wasn’t being aggressive in the first half,” Peeler said. “At halftime I said I needed to be more aggressive and not be so passive.”

The performance left James impressed.

“All their starters were in double figures, and then Anthony Peeler came in and made big shots,” James said. “It’s hard to defend their jump shots because they shoot them from so far away from the basket. They just came out and made a lot of key shots in the second half.”

Antawn Jamison finished with 16 points. Brendan Haywood added 15 points and six rebounds, Jarvis Hayes added 13 points and Jared Jeffries finished with 12.

Drew Gooden added 17 points for the Cavaliers.

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