- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 22, 2006

No one is going to have to tell Gilbert Arenas to relax and breathe slowly when he and the Washington Wizards play Game 1 of their Eastern Conference first-round playoff series this afternoon in Cleveland.

That wasn’t the case last year.

“I’m not as nervous as I was,” Arenas said, thinking back to the Wizards’ playoff series with the Chicago Bulls, the first of his career. “The first time you do anything, you get butterflies. Your body feels, I don’t know, kind of strange.”

The first-time jitters showed last year for the Wizards, who are making consecutive playoff appearances for the first time since the Bullets made five straight from 1984 to 1988. The Wizards opened the 2005 playoffs on the road and dropped Games 1 and 2 to the Bulls before rallying to sweep the next four to win the series.

But this year’s fifth-seeded Wizards (42-40), who will play the first two games at fourth-seeded Cleveland before returning for Game 3 on Friday at Verizon Center, believe that this team is better equipped than last season’s for the playoffs.

With the additions of Caron Butler and Antonio Daniels the Wizards’ roster indeed has more experience. Daniels, the first man off the bench, won a championship with San Antonio (1999) and has made six postseason appearances in his nine-year career. Butler played a prominent role on Miami’s 2003-04 playoff team in his second season.

“Last year it was the first [postseason] for a lot of guys,” Wizards captain Antawn Jamison said. “Now we are a little bit more mature. I think the chemistry is a little bit better because we know what we have to do.

“Last year going into the playoffs we were like, ‘What do we do now?’ This team is a little bit more mature than last year and that’s why I’d give this team the edge. I think the bench is a little bit better too.”

While the Wizards had a better regular-season record last season (45-37), that season was more of a magic carpet ride into the playoffs, where they were eliminated 4-0 in the second round by Miami.

But this season has had quite a few bumps in the road.

In the offseason, Larry Hughes, so vital to what the Wizards accomplished, had been signed by Cleveland, lured away by $12 million a season through 2010.

And after a 5-1 start, the Wizards fell on hard times, at one point falling six games below .500 (13-19). They had to endure talk about their coach’s job being in jeopardy, and at the end of the season, they lost Butler to injury for five games and nearly tumbled completely out of the postseason.

“This team has been through a lot of things and all the time we’ve stuck together,” Daniels said. “Now we’re where we wanted to be all the time — in the postseason. It’s the best time of the year and we’re ready to have a good time.”

One of the main questions concerning the Cavaliers is how well LeBron James will respond in his first playoff appearance.

Arenas, for one, doesn’t have any questions or doubts about James, whom he will compete with later in the summer for spots on the U.S. national team in the World Championships in Japan.

“If we’re expecting to see him fall on his face, we’re in trouble. We don’t expect that,” Arenas said. “He’s been to the Olympics before. He’s won the MVP at the All-Star Game. He’s been getting ready for this all his life.”

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