A date with LeBron James & Co. always represents a special, love-hate get-together for the Washington Wizards.
Tuesday’s engagement is no exception. The Wizards face the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena for the first time this season - a meeting that noticeably has raised the intensity in the locker room.
The Wizards and Cavaliers established a rivalry - at least, according to one team - with three straight meetings in the playoffs from 2006 to 2008.
The Cavaliers won all three series, but the clashes still produced plenty of sparks.
Last season, for example, Wizards guard DeShawn Stevenson engaged in a feud with James that even prompted rapper Jay-Z to pen a song dissing Stevenson. (The feud still reverberates: In Cleveland last month for a preseason game, Stevenson received a special message from an airport attendant: “I hate you.”)
Even last season, when the injury-plagued Wizards won just 19 games, the matchups with the Cavaliers still made for competitive basketball.
James says he doesn’t view the Wizards as rivals, but his counterparts beg to differ.
“He’s the golden child. He’s going to say that. He has a lot of stuff to lose. I don’t. I don’t care,” Stevenson said. “As long as I’m on the court, yeah. As long as I’m on the court, Gilbert’s on the court, Caron, Brendan, Antawn. Until we all go away, it’s going to be a rivalry. You can tell, just the fans. And watch the tipoff - don’t nobody say ‘what’s up’ to each other. No handshakes. Any other team we always give handshakes to everybody.
“But it’s a rivalry. I know it’s going to be hard fouls and the fans booing. It’s a rivalry. It’s going to be a tough game.”
Cleveland coach Mike Brown avoids talk of a rivalry but says the Wizards and Cavaliers match up with each other well.
“I’m not a yapping type of guy. … They obviously can do what they want to do,” Brown said. “We’ve had some good games in the past in the playoffs and stuff like that. Maybe it is a rivalry, and maybe it’s not. It doesn’t feel the same as it was in the playoffs a few years ago.”
Flip Saunders, a Cleveland native and newcomer to the District, says he developed a dislike for the Cavaliers from his days as coach of the Detroit Pistons, who faced Cleveland in the playoffs in both 2006 and 2007. But he warned his players to remain focused on themselves if they expect to win.
Most of the Wizards are doing their best to follow that advice.
“I’m just focused on playing,” Butler said.
Center Brendan Haywood last season publicly mocked James for his complaints about hard fouls but now says that’s in the past.
“I play basketball,” Haywood said. “We can go out there, I can foul you hard. You can foul me hard. I can be mad at you that day, but the next time we see each other, it’s a different game. It’s a different day. I don’t need to hold a grudge. Life’s too short.”
Even the new members of the Wizards notice a different buzz and say it didn’t take long for their new teammates to indoctrinate them.
“Preparing for these guys, that’s been the talk from Day One of training camp,” said backup guard Randy Foye, who joined the Wizards this summer. “I got a little bit of an education about it in talking to DeShawn, talking to Gil, guys like that. They don’t make it seem as it’s a big rivalry, but you can just tell by certain things they say.”
Foye turned to old YouTube videos to educate himself on the 2008 fireworks between the teams.
“Even when we played [Cleveland] in the preseason, they booed us when we ran out there,” he said. “They were waiting for us to come out. Games like this, Coach doesn’t even have to say much. Guys are already ready to go.”
Note - Butler returned to the practice court Monday, three days after he exited early from a loss to Atlanta with a bruised left knee and two days after he missed the home-opening win against New Jersey.
Saunders said the two-time All-Star went through Monday’s practice with no problem and expects to have him back on the court against the Cavaliers.
Butler himself was a bit more cautious.
“I feel decent,” said Butler, who hurt the knee while diving for a loose ball early in the second quarter. “I’ll see how I feel in the morning, and if I feel all right, I’ll definitely give it a go.”
By Douglas Holtz-Eakin
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