CLEVELAND | Flip Saunders said his Washington Wizards squad entered Tuesday night’s game at Quicken Loans Arena in a prime position. They would get to test themselves against the team that won a league-best 66 games last season. But because it was only the fourth game of the season, the impact, win or lose, wouldn’t be great.
“I think it’s a good challenge from the standpoint that in one week’s time, or a month, no one’s going to know who won the game, basically,” Saunders said 90 minutes before tipoff. “But it’s also a good as far as telling you where you’re at both the good and the bad.”
The good was that for a half, the Wizards managed to hang with the Cavaliers and even build a double-digit game while holding LeBron James and Shaquille O’Neal in check. The bad was that when the Cavaliers started pounding the ball inside, Washington couldn’t match Cleveland’s physicality and instead found its big men mired in foul trouble. And without Antawn Jamison, a slightly subpar Caron Butler and Gilbert Arenas weren’t enough.
The bad was also a 102-90 Cleveland victory, which marked the Wizards’ fifth straight regular-season loss at Quicken Loans Arena dating back to Feb. 24, 2006.
LeBron James led Cleveland with 27 points, while O’Neal added 21 points and eight rebounds. Arenas and Butler tallied 22 points apiece for the Wizards, who fell to 2-2 on the season.
Early on, Caron Butler showed no lingering effects of the bruised knee that forced him out of the second quarter of Washington’s game at Atlanta on Friday and caused him to miss Saturday’s home opener. On Tuesday versus the Cavaliers, he scored 13 first-quarter points to ignite a Washington team that took a 31-17 lead into the second quarter.
The Wizards, who also got 10 points from Gilbert Arenas to start the game, shot 55 percent from the field in the first quarter while limiting the Cavaliers to 33.3 percent shooting and holding James to four points.
Washington led by as many as 18 with just under 10 minutes left in the second quarter. Then Cleveland went to an XL lineup that featured the 7-foot-2 Shaquille O’Neal and 7-foot-3 Zydrunas Ilgauskas on the floor at the same time. Coach Mike Brown’s move quickly caused problems for the Wizards’ big men as Brendan Haywood, Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee all rapidly picked up three fouls apiece. O’Neal, usually weak from the foul line, made four of six shots from the stripe and tallied 10 second-quarter points in all.
The Cavaliers, meanwhile, cut the lead to 11 before James re-entered the game with just under eight minutes left in the half. Once back on the floor, James attacked the basket, getting to the foul line five times and making seven of nine free throws.
Adding to the Wizards’ struggles was a 7-for-20 shooting performance from the field; by halftime, the Cavaliers had trimmed the lead to 54-50.
In the third quarter it wasn’t James, but the mop-topped Anderson Varejao, who jump-started his team on a 12-4 run by grabbing three early rebounds and scoring six of his 10 points in the first four minutes of the quarter. Varejao’s baseline layup with 7:51 left in the third gave Cleveland a 59-58 lead (the first time it had been in front since the 6:03 mark of the first quarter). Cleveland, while holding Butler to three points in the third and Arenas to four, never trailed from that point on, taking a 78-73 lead into the fourth quarter.
The Cavaliers used a 13-4 run (capped by a Daniel Gibson 3-pointer) in the opening 4 1/2 minutes of the fourth to expand the lead to 91-77. Gibson’s 3-pointer was one of four in the fourth quarter for Cleveland, which after going just 2-for-12 from the arc in the first half, made nine of 13 attempts in the second half.