Thursday, April 19, 2007

INDIANAPOLIS — Now, they know. It’s Cleveland.


After a 98-95 victory over the Indiana Pacers last night, the Washington Wizards are headed to the playoffs for the third straight season — this time as the No. 7 seed — and will open this weekend against LeBron James and No. 2 seed Cleveland in the first round.

The Cavaliers, who eliminated the Wizards in the first round in six games last season, earned the No. 2 seed with a win and New Jersey’s victory over Chicago.

The series will begin at Cleveland either Saturday or Sunday.

The Wizards (41-41) have struggled over the last two months, falling from first place in the Eastern Conference to having to wait until the final hours of the regular season to see whether they would be the sixth, seventh or eighth seed. And they lost All-Stars Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler to injury.

“Just to gut a win out like this and end up 41-41 is what we wanted to do,” coach Eddie Jordan said. “And now the next step is to prepare for Cleveland. We’re going to get together and think about a game plan and see if we can execute it. But right now I’m just happy for the guys that we were able to get a win and have everyone contribute. We had six guys with double-figures, so everybody had a hand in it.”

Antawn Jamison had 19 points and 11 rebounds for his 22nd double-double of the season to lead the Wizards, who also got 15 points from DeShawn Stevenson. Antonio Daniels battled back pains to finish with 13 points and nine assists.

Darius Songaila added 12 off the bench, and the center combination of Etan Thomas and Brendan Haywood combined for 21 points, 12 boards and seven blocks.

The Pacers (35-47), playing with a makeshift lineup, were led by Mike Dunleavy’s 17 points.

The Pacers came into last night’s game having lost 22 of their last 28 games, and even in a horrid Eastern Conference few outside of their diehard fans had considered them a potential playoff team for the last three months.

Daniels gave the Wizards a 96-95 lead when he made the second of two free throws with 30.1 left in the fourth quarter.

The Wizards caught a break when Indiana’s Ike Diogu clanged a pair of free throws.

Songaila stepped to the line with 17.8 to play and extended the Wizards’ lead to 98-95 with a pair of free throws, and Jarvis Hayes sealed the Wizards’ meeting with the Cavaliers when he stole Danny Granger’s pass out to the perimeter, allowing the Wizards to dribble out the clock

“I’m excited,” said Hayes, who came up with a pair of big steals in the fourth quarter. “I’ve been hurt the last two times we went. This is going to be a 2-7 matchup, and we know we’re going to see a lot of LeBron. So we’re just going to put our hard hats on and get ready for a dogfight series.

Of course, the playoffs are about star power, and the Wizards are missing two stars in Arenas and Butler.

Last year stopping James was impossible. Not only did he win two games on last-second shots, but he also put up whopping numbers, finishing the series with 51 percent shooting, averaging almost 36 points, grabbing 7.5 rebounds and dishing out 5.6 assists.

“We know it’s going to be tough, and we know that there are going to be people out there who don’t think we can win a game,” Jamison said. “That’s OK. I know that nobody in this locker room thinks that way. We feel we have a chance to win a series. This is the time of the season that you live for.”

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