Call it a sneak peek for next season. Call it a sliver of redemption.
After languishing all season with franchise player Gilbert Arenas and top center Brendan Haywood out with injuries, the Washington Wizards finally had both on the floor at the same time Thursday night. As a result, they fielded a starting lineup closely resembling the one team officials and fans expected would begin the season - and they got the anticipated results.
The Wizards - owners of the Eastern Conference's worst record - welcomed LeBron James and the league-leading Cleveland Cavaliers to town and pulled off a 109-101 victory in front of a sellout crowd at Verizon Center.
Led by 25 points from Caron Butler, 12 points and 10 rebounds from Haywood and 11 points and 10 assists from Arenas, the Wizards (18-59) snapped a three-game losing skid and ended the Cavaliers' 13-game winning streak.
"Before the game, I said this would be a snapshot, but now I'm saying it's a portrait because it was a win," Wizards interim coach Ed Tapscott said. "This will give people a reprieve. This is what we thought we would be this season, but it's been a tough year because of injuries. So it's nice to get a little bit of this back at the end."
The night had a deja vu feeling to it - for good reason. The Wizards and Cavaliers (61-14) have built a rivalry, having faced each other in the playoffs three straight years. Cleveland got the best of Washington each time, and the teams won't meet in the playoffs this year. But the Wizards - determined to make the most of their next-to-last date of the season with King James and Co. - approached the game as if it were another postseason matchup.
This time they came out on the winning end.
Thanks to a 17-9 second-quarter run, the Wizards took an eight-point halftime lead and never trailed again. The Cavaliers - down by double digits nearly the entire third quarter - roared to life with an 18-9 tear in the fourth quarter and pulled within 89-88 with 6:51 left. Then came a boost from unlikely hero Darius Songaila, who scored the next five points to build an 95-89 advantage.
After going 2-for-10 from the field in the first 44 minutes of the game, Arenas knocked down a tough fall-away jumper to extend Washington's lead to 97-89 with roughly four minutes left.
Mo Williams then missed a 3-pointer, and Arenas got the rebound and sent a long outlet pass to Jamison for an easy layup that gave Washington a 101-92 advantage. James came back with a 3-pointer, and the Wizards called a timeout with 2:41 left to play.
Anderson Varejao cut the deficit to four with a layup, but the Cavaliers didn't get any closer.
"At the end of the day, it's still a meaningless win toward the record," Arenas said. "But for us, it's a real win. They're trying to be the best. [James is] trying to win an MVP award, so they had everything to lose and we had everything to gain from it."
Cleveland opened the game on a 9-2 run, forcing a Washington timeout three minutes into the contest. The Wizards responded with a 14-6 burst capped by a finger roll by Jamison that gave Washington a 16-15 edge with 3:08 left in the quarter.
The Wizards, aided by a 14-10 rebounding edge and 8-0 differential on second-chance points, took a 22-19 lead into the second quarter.
And showing further evidence that things were going better for the Wizards than they had all year, Jamison caught a pass from Arenas on the perimeter, drove baseline and threw down a thunderous jam over Sasha Pavlovic, extending Washington's lead to 39-34 with 3:45 left in the half.
The Wizards were at their best with Arenas and Young in the backcourt and Butler, Haywood and Jamison in the frontcourt. Jamison and Haywood re-entered the game to complete that lineup with 5:18 left in the second and the score tied at 32-32. From that point on, the Wizards outscored the Cavaliers 17-9 the rest of the quarter.
During the run, the Wizards shot 6-for-7 from the field and 4-for-4 from the foul line. Meanwhile, Cleveland shot 4-for-8 and turned the ball over twice. Arenas put the exclamation point on the first half, intercepting a pass intended for Delonte West at halfcourt and racing for a layup that gave Washington a 49-41 lead with 1.2 seconds on the clock.
Joining Etan Thomas (knee), Juan Dixon (Achilles), DeShawn Stevenson (back surgery) and Mike James (broken finger) on the injured list was Javaris Crittenton. The second-year point guard had started the last two games for Washington but was sidelined with back spasms.
On Wednesday night against Memphis, Crittenton recorded his first double-double with 13 points and 11 rebounds but started experiencing discomfort on the flight home. When he landed and was stepping up into his truck, his back tightened up. He received treatment all Thursday afternoon but experienced no relief.