- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 21, 2007

So this is Jarvis Hayes’ reward for finally staying healthy as the Washington Wizards prepare for the playoffs.

Guard LeBron James.

That will be Hayes’ primary duty tomorrow when the seventh-seeded Wizards begin play in their Eastern Conference first-round playoff series at heavily favored No. 2 seed Cleveland.

But that’s not until tomorrow, which seems to be the initial reason Hayes was so giddy after the team’s practice yesterday before leaving for Cleveland in the early afternoon.

Even though he’s going to have to spend much of the series slam-dancing with the 6-foot-8, 250-pound forward, he rather would be talking about his playoff debut.

“I’m real excited about just being in the playoffs for the first time, being able to walk out on the floor and stand on that NBA playoff logo,” Hayes said. “To me, that’s huge.”

Hayes’ late arrival on the playoff scene isn’t what the Wizards envisioned when they made him the 10th pick of the 2003 draft.

After averaging 9.6 points in his rookie season, injuries limited the 6-8, 220-pound Hayes to just 54 and 21 games, respectively, the next two seasons. Last season ended with surgery on his broken right knee in February 2006.

“I played 81 games this year, so I feel blessed,” Hayes said. “Every year at this time I’ve been hurt. Watching hasn’t been any fun.”

When the series begins in Cleveland, that old saying “be careful what you ask for” might apply.

James caused the Wizards all sorts of problems last season, when the Cavaliers dismissed a Washington team led by now-injured Gilbert Arenas (knee surgery) and Caron Butler (broken hand) in the first round.

In the Cavaliers’ 4-2 series win, the Wizards used 6-11 Jared Jeffries — then considered the best defensive player on the team — to guard James.

But the Wizards and Jeffries (now in New York) didn’t so much as slow James, who shot 51 percent from the floor and averaged 36.0 points, 7.5 rebounds and 5.6 assists in the series.

The Wizards will begin the series with Hayes, who averaged 7.2 points a game, on James. But at times, Hayes likely will have the help of Michael Ruffin.

Hayes will welcome that and any other assistance.

“At 6-10, 250,” Hayes says, exaggerating James’ height, “he’s a beast. Their whole team is fueled by what LeBron does. So we have to get to him and slow him up a little bit. If he gets off, it can start to snowball.”

Not wanting to unveil his plans for James, coach Eddie Jordan said the Wizards have seen enough of James this season to know when to double-team him.

What they won’t do, however, is get too wrapped up in dealing with James exclusively.

The Wizards want to make James settle for jump shots rather than allow him to attack the basket.

The Cavaliers won the season series 2-1. However, in the closest game — a 99-95 Cleveland victory at Verizon Center without Arenas or Butler in the lineup — James settled for jump shots and finished the game with 25 points on 7-for-23 shooting.

The Wizards almost won that game despite committing 23 turnovers and making just 12 of 22 free throws.

“It’s hard to stop LeBron,” Wizards center Brendan Haywood said. “If there was a way to stop him, people would have figured it out a long time ago. The only way to play him is to try to force him to take a lot of contested jumpers. If you can do that and keep him out of the paint, we can live with that.”

Notes — The last time a No. 7 seed defeated a No. 2 was in 1998, when New York defeated Miami (3-2). …

The Wizards, who finished with a record identical to New Jersey (41-41), won a lottery to determine the draft order. The Wizards will pick 16th. …

Arenas traveled with the Wizards to Cleveland yesterday afternoon. Arenas has yet to attend a game since suffering a season-ending knee injury April 4 against Charlotte.

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