- The Washington Times - Friday, April 21, 2006

There is a sense with the Cleveland Cavaliers that Mike Brown merely hands the ball to LeBron James and leaves the rest of the coaching decisions to him.

That is a notion Brown almost fosters himself, as he is forever noting his good fortune in having a player the caliber of James.

His lack of pretense is the sustenance to an impressive work ethic, says Cavaliers general manager Danny Ferry.

“I think coach Brown sells himself short,” Ferry says. “But I also think that is what makes him so good as a coach. But it is true that we are all fortunate to have a player like LeBron and the core group of players that we have.”

No one can find fault with the results set in place by the leadership of Ferry and Brown, both in their first season in their respective capacities. Both answered the SOS of owner Dan Gilbert, who fired coach Paul Silas three weeks after buying a team that was in free-fall mode last year and eventually missed advancing to the playoffs.

That period of uneasiness and doubt has been supplanted by a feel-good mood for a team that has become the city’s first playoff team in the three major sports since the NFL Browns in 2002.

“It starts with the front office and coaching staff,” Gilbert says. “There is nothing more important on the basketball side of the operation than having those two areas in place.”

The moment is tugging on Ferry on a personal level, for his father Bob was the long-time executive of the Washington Bullets.

“It is strange, that is for sure,” the DeMatha Catholic High School product says. “If it was at the Capital Centre, it would be even more eerie for me.”

Although the Cavaliers finished with a 50-32 record — an eight-game improvement over last season that resulted in the team’s first playoff berth since 1998 — they remain a study in uncertainty. Beyond the mega-watt power of the 21-year-old James, an MVP candidate, the Cavaliers are an eclectic mix of pieces still looking to forge a personality.

The Cavaliers are neither defensively oriented nor offensively efficient in their halfcourt sets. Their growth can be traced to the development of James, who became the fourth player in NBA history to average at least 31 points, seven rebounds and six assists in a season after Oscar Robertson, Jerry West and Michael Jordan.

It is his team, his city, and this is his playoff series, win or lose, as the Cavaliers meet the Washington Wizards in Game1 today in the Quicken Loans Arena, also known as “The Q.”

“It’s going to be a very different experience for me,” James says of his first playoff appearance. “I’m going to go at it just like it’s a regular-season game. I’m not going to change my routine. I don’t believe in pressure.”

That could come as a surprise to those who see James chewing furiously on his fingernails at the end of games.

“That’s just a habit from when I was 4 or 5 years old,” he says. “It’s not a sign of nervousness. It’s just a hard habit to break.”

James and the Cavaliers have taken to growing beards in a show of team solidarity.

“We are not teammates,” James says. “We are like family.”

The bearded ones accept the worthiness of the Wizards, who won three of the four games with the Cavaliers in the regular season.

“They won the series, so I probably would want to play us, too, if I were them,” Brown said.

James says the Cavaliers will not overlook Gilbert Arenas, who can be just as formidable on offense as James, only with considerably less fanfare.

“We’ll have to do a great job on Gilbert Arenas,” James says. “He’s one of the greats in the league right now.”

That defensive challenge will fall on Larry Hughes, Arenas’ former backcourt mate who bolted to Cleveland last summer.

Hughes, an NBA All-Defensive first-team member with the Wizards last season, is relishing the opportunity to go against his buddy. They already have taken to exchanging good-natured jibes with one another by telephone.

“He’s a defensive player, and he thinks he can stop me,” Arenas says. “We started talking trash when they played here last game, so I know that’s going to continue.”

So it is James vs. the Wizards, Hughes vs. Arenas and a first-round playoff series that promises to be extremely competitive.

“Enough with the talking,” James says. “It’s time to be ready to play on Saturday.”

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