Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Washington Wizards do not see stopping LeBron James as their No.1 priority tonight when they return to Cleveland for Game 2 of the first-round Eastern Conference playoff series. Sure, stopping the 21-year-old prodigy who dismantled them in Game 1 is important — but secondary.

“Most importantly, I thought our offense let us down, and it hurt our defense,” said coach Eddie Jordan, whose team shot 40.8 percent from the floor and made just three of 22 3-point attempts Saturday. “The Big Three have to understand we have to share the ball. We have to get equal opportunity, and we have to attack in a disciplined matter. We didn’t do that. We were playing selfish basketball.”

The Wizards are the league’s third-highest scoring team at 101.7 points but were held 15 points below their season average in the 97-86 defeat. The touted trio of Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler were 15-for-47 overall and 2-for-15 from beyond the arc while totaling 48 points, 19 points below their average.

James had his way in his playoff debut with 32 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists, and the Wizards countered with an array of blanks. Washington hopes an effective offense will be its best defense tonight.

“Offensively, it wasn’t there,” said Jamison, who made four of 13 shots and scored 11 points. “We cheated the plays. We cheated our cuts. We weren’t aggressive. We were lazy with the ball.”

The Wizards spent the last two days trying to reset the offense as well as find answers for James. Two role players had strong games offensively, with Jared Jeffries scoring 15 points and Antonio Daniels making all six of his shots and finishing with 14 points.

However, the Big Three ultimately must set the tone, and in Game 1 it was a somber one. Arenas had nine points in the first three quarters and was benched for little-used sub Billy Thomas, while Butler was 4-for-14.

“We were rushing things,” said Butler, who had only five points going into the fourth quarter. “We were doing a lot of things that were out of character. Coach showed us films. He showed us that our offense works. Obviously, we know that. We just have to stick with it.”

As for James, the Wizards feel they must make him work harder on defense and make more difficult decisions when he has the ball. James played all 48 minutes in Game 1 and shredded the defense not only with his dribble penetration but his ability to find the open man out of the double-team.

Some of his unheralded teammates took advantage, with Donyell Marshall totaling 19 points and Eric Snow 14. Washington will be happy to take its chances if those role players continue to shoot, but the Wizards know the key is forcing James to make plays from the perimeter.

The Wizards will continue to collapse when the 6-foot-8 James attacks the lane but not when he is outside.

“We know he is unstoppable once he gets a right-hand drive,” Jordan said. “We allowed one early in the game and a couple of others that we shouldn’t have allowed. I thought we paid him too much attention in his isolation, not necessarily his drives or his pick and rolls. So he found people in the open floor [with] cutters, skip passes. We have to do a better job on that.”

The Wizards rotated defenders on James last game and likely will keep doing so. Jeffries is again expected to get first crack, hoping to use his athletic 6-11 frame to bother James.

Jeffries has a chance not only to stop the superstar but also to make a lot of money. In the offseason, the fourth-year forward will become a restricted free agent, meaning the Wizards will need to match any offer to keep him. General manager Ernie Grunfeld said the Wizards want to keep him, but money could be a factor.

Jeffries has a little extra motivation knowing that playing well could mean millions.

“You definitely want to come out and put on a good performance every night with the whole country watching LeBron,” Jeffries said. “Maybe you can steal some of that limelight for yourself.”

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