- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 20, 2003

Washington Wizards reserve Etan Thomas is serving notice that he can be a deciding factor in the deciding moments of games.

Thomas, who more and more is on the court during the final minutes, posted a career-high 18 points, grabbed 10 rebounds (seven offensive), blocked two shots and provided enough energy to help turn LeBron James’ first visit to MCI Center a 106-95 loss for the Cleveland Cavaliers last night.

In recent games, Thomas’ reserve status has meant nothing because he is on the court when the game is in doubt, grabbing crucial rebounds and slamming home monster dunks that quiet road crowds and enliven MCI.

Last night against Cleveland was no different.

James, the 18-year-old prodigy, was marvelous, finishing with 28 points (10-for-18 shooting), eight assists and seven rebounds to lead the Cavaliers (4-8), while Gilbert Arenas (25 points) and Larry Hughes (22 points, eight rebounds) were huge for the Wizards.

The Wizards also got the first double-double of the season from power forward Kwame Brown (15 points, 10 boards). But the fourth quarter belonged to Thomas, who scored 10 of his points and grabbed five rebounds in the game’s final 12 minutes.

“He’s the heart and soul of what we do,” coach Eddie Jordan said. “We’ve kind of taken his personality, his grit, his determination and second effort. He’s our leader right now.”

He’s also a player who is starting to hear the mounting cry to get him into the starting lineup. It sounds good, but Thomas chooses diplomacy for now.

“I’m comfortable with whatever decision coach Jordan wants to make,” Thomas said. “I’m comfortable coming off the bench. Brendan [Haywood] is doing a good job. And [Christian] Laettner was doing a good job before he got hurt. So I’m comfortable coming off the bench. Whatever capacity they want me to play in, I’m comfortable in.”

The Wizards have now seen James four times — twice each in preseason and the regular season — and Jordan, who played alongside Magic Johnson, compared the 18-year-old player to him.

“He’s close,” Jordan said. “He’s very, very close. He just doesn’t have Kareem, Eddie Jordan or Jamal Wilkes to play with.”

He does have Darius Miles (12 points, six rebounds), Zydrunas Ilgauskas (nine points, four blocks) and Ricky Davis (13 points) as teammates, but none gave James much help early on.

Despite shooting much better than Washington (46.8 percent to 39 percent), the Cavaliers fell behind by 19 points early in the second quarter. However, the Cavaliers fed off of James’ energy in the second quarter, and, with James as the sparkplug, they outscored the Wizards 22-8 before halftime to trail by only five points at the break.

The Cavaliers, playing without leading rebounder Carlos Boozer, cut the Wizards’ lead to 75-72 on James’ 3-pointer early in the fourth quarter, which seemed to set the stage for a close finish. But with reserves Juan Dixon, Steve Blake, Thomas and Jared Jeffries getting extended minutes, Washington fended off the Cleveland charge.

All the Wizards needed to be more involved was hearty support from the crowd of 19,705, and they got that after a horrendous double technical foul was called.

After Dixon’s 3-pointer gave the Wizards an 89-82 lead with 5:46 to play, Cleveland’s Ira Newble tried to hit Thomas with an elbow, then hurled the ball at Thomas. The Cavaliers cut the lead to six points but never really threatened after that.

Thomas shrugged off the incident.

“I’m an emotional player,” Thomas said. “It’s not anything personal.”

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