- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 25, 2006

CLEVELAND — Sometimes basketball is no more complicated than a made shot, as the Wizards learned in Game 1 of their series with LeBron James and his disciples.

The Wizards were unable to throw the ball into Lake Erie, and they allowed this to undermine their sense of purpose on defense and in rebounding.

This corrosive tendency is connected to how the Wizards see themselves.

They were the third-highest scoring team in the NBA during the regular season. Most of their success comes from their efficiency on offense.a

That is not how Eddie Jordan has planned it in his three seasons as coach of the Wizards. He forever has preached the tenets and benefits of team defense.

Yet these exhortations are inevitably undermined by the team’s physical liabilities. As much as Antawn Jamison would like to be a hard-nosed power forward, he has the body of a shooting guard. He is not built to take a hit, and he concedes defensive space with the slightest contact.

The Wizards’ principal post players, Brendan “I Love My Mama” Haywood and Etan “The Poet” Thomas, are inconsistent defenders at best. Haywood has the capacity to eliminate the mistakes of others with his help defense — and he seems inclined to do just that now — but he went through a long stretch of seeming indifference during the regular season.

The Poet, like Michael Ruffin, is an undersized center who does not shy from contact but has limitations. Those limitations can become especially pronounced against the 7-foot-3 Zydrunas Ilgauskas.

Even if Haywood and The Poet are being active defenders, they sometimes negate it with their blinder-wearing forays to the basket. Whenever The Poet starts his rock-a-bye-baby maneuver around the basket, you are compelled to avert your eyes and wait for the traveling call of a referee.

Caron Butler and Jared Jeffries are defensively oriented types, but two players hardly add up to a competent defensive team, which reverts to the need of the Wizards to hit shots.

And they did not do that in Game 1.

The Big Three of Butler, Jamison and Gilbert Arenas combined to shoot a dismal 15-for-47 from the field. Some of it was because of itchy trigger fingers, some of it was because of the abandonment of the Princeton offense and some of it was because the Wizards could not make an open shot.

For all the talk of James’ ability to save the whale, feed the hungry and bring peace to the world, the Cavaliers won the game with 97 points, which was almost five lower than the Wizards’ 101.7 scoring average in the regular season.

If just one of the Big Three had managed to shoot the ball with consistency, the game certainly would have proceeded in a more compelling fashion and perhaps played on the nerves of the Cavaliers.

Instead, the Wizards head into Game 2 tonight in the Chosen One’s Chapel after listening to three days’ worth of the congregation’s hosannas, demented as all that is.

The suspicion here is the suddenly marginalized Wizards will show up with the focus, aggression and fury that was unacceptably absent in Game 1.

Butler will be apt to flex his muscles in order to gauge the prejudicial bent of the three referees. And you can bet Arenas will attack the basket with a ferocity that did not evidence itself until the fourth quarter of Game 1.

The Wizards have every reason to personalize this series now.

The NBA nation is ridiculing the Wizards whenever it bothers to mention them.

The silly-looking bearded ones — and Ilgauskas is the silliest-looking one of them all — are feeling mighty good about themselves.

Here is the thing: The bearded ones have no answers for Arenas, Butler and Jamison, and they will succumb to stress if sufficiently prodded.

For the Wizards, it is this simple in Game 2: convert a higher number of their shot attempts and see how those beards hold up.

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