Sunday, April 23, 2006

CLEVELAND — At one point in the second quarter as he walked over to his bewildered teammates, Caron Butler, not speaking to anyone in particular, asked, “What are we doing?”

Butler’s teammates never provided the answer to his question, perhaps because they couldn’t hear him in the din of Quicken Loans Arena. But more likely, they didn’t provide an answer because none of them had one.

With LeBron James leading the way — wasn’t he supposed to be overwhelmed by the enormity of the playoffs? — the Wizards opened their best-of-seven playoff series by falling to the Cleveland Cavaliers 97-86 in front of 20,562.

James, who might just be the best 21-year-old basketball player that the world has ever seen, was dominant in his playoff debut, posting a triple-double: 32 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists — the first one in Cavaliers’ playoff history.

“We said we were going to keep him off his right hand and he went right all night,” Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas said. “That’s why he had a triple-double against us in his debut. If he’s going to have a triple-double, they are going to win the game. We have to limit what he does to win this series.”

What the Wizards will also have to do if they are going to win the series, or even be competitive, is get more accuracy and efficiency from the guys who brought them this far — Arenas, Butler and Antawn Jamison.

The top scoring trio in the league, Arenas (26 points), Butler (11) and Jamison (11) combined to shoot 15-for-47, a recipe for disaster for them.

But that’s just a starting point. The Cavaliers outrebounded the Wizards 52-36. Defensively, Cleveland reduced Washington to a jump-shooting team that wanted nothing to do with going inside or attacking the basket. As a result, they shot 29-for-71 from the field, including a rancid 3-for-22 from 3-point range.

“That was certainly was playoff basketball by the Cavaliers,” Wizards coach Eddie Jordan said. “It wasn’t playoff basketball by the Wizards. It was hard to contain LeBron. He found open people and for the most part the open people made shots. He got drives to the basket. Give them credit for playing focused playoff basketball, which we did not.”

Donyell Marshall came off Cleveland’s bench for 19 points and seven rebounds. Veteran point guard Eric Snow had 14 points, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Flip Murray both added 10 for Cleveland, which has now won 12 straight home games.

Former Wizards guard Larry Hughes, acquired by the Cavaliers last season as a $60 million free agent, hounded Arenas defensively. But Hughes struggled on offense, scoring just two points on 1-for-9 shooting

James served notice late in the first quarter that he was not going to be intimidated in his first playoff game, breaking open an 18-18 game with nine straight points. That was part of a 13-2 closing run that gave Cleveland a 31-20 first-quarter lead.

The Cavaliers never relinquished the lead, which at its largest point grew to 19 points in the fourth quarter.

The Wizards had emphasized coming out and playing hard enough to perhaps steal Game 1. But just like last season’s playoffs, when they opened their best-of-seven series at Chicago with a loss, the Wizards, were dreadful.

For most of the afternoon the Wizards wore quizzical looks, puzzled at what they have to do in Game 2 here Tuesday, if they are going to pull even and make this a competitive series.

“Our coaches had us prepared,” Butler said. “But when the game started, we did everything they told us not to do.”

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