Tuesday, April 24, 2007

CLEVELAND — Now that the Washington Wizards have fallen in a 0-1 hole against a Cleveland team almost unanimously picked to win this first-round series, there is a rumbling for Brendan Haywood.

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

For those who haven’t accepted the inevitable, let’s just say that as far as salves go, this is tantamount to treating a shark bite with Neosporin.

Wizards fans are crying for the 7-foot Haywood because they want to see what he can do against Cleveland center Zydrunas Ilgauskas. In Cleveland’s 97-82 Game 1 victory Sunday, Cavaliers coach Mike Brown decided neither Etan Thomas (6-10) nor anyone else Wizards coach Eddie Jordan played in the fourth quarter could handle his 7-3 center.

Brown was right. Ilgauskas scored 11 of his 16 points in the fourth quarter, when he was 3-for-4 from the field and made five of six free throws.

Could Haywood have prevented this? Perhaps that will be revealed tomorrow. Of course, LeBron James could be his old self again and render the point moot.

Jordan, who has been forced to tinker with his lineup during the last three weeks more than any other coach in the playoffs, said yesterday that Haywood, scoreless with one rebound in five minutes, still is in the team’s plans and went so far as to suggest Haywood could start tomorrow.

“There could be a change. I don’t know yet,” Jordan said. “I’m hoping that Etan can start off really well and that we can go with a normal rotation, and Brendan’s been the first big off the bench. Now what he does with that is up to him.”

Some Cavaliers players suggested Haywood is the better matchup against their big man than Thomas, who had just two points and five rebounds in almost 21 minutes.

“I sort of expected Brendan to play more because of the success he has had guarding me,” Ilgauskas said. “I really don’t know what is going on. I am pretty sure we will see him more. He’s a 7-footer with that wing span and is a good defender in the post. He is hard to score against.”

Those who support Haywood point to the stretch of games in which he supplanted an injured Thomas in the starting lineup. The Wizards won 24 out of 32 games and for two months easily were the best team in the Eastern Conference.

Unfortunately for the Wizards, Haywood is at his best — both as a teammate and as a player — when things run smoothly, and every team experiences troubles at one time or another. The Wizards’ woes came in the form of injuries to Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison. When inconsistent play manifested itself, Jordan did what most coaches would do — he made a lineup change, moving Haywood to the bench.

That has less to do with the type of player Haywood is — he really isn’t is bad as some critics perceive — than it does with the rationale that only a fool would consider benching either Arenas, Butler or Jamison and that veterans DeShawn Stevenson and Antonio Daniels — a starter and a top reserve, respectively — understood perfectly their roles as defined by Jordan.

When the Wizards lost Arenas (knee surgery) and Butler (broken hand) earlier this month, they suffered losses that no team in the league could overcome. Remove Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire from Phoenix or Dirk Nowitzki and Josh Howard from Dallas this late in the season and those two powerhouses and their coaches would be left grasping for straws.

That is exactly where the Wizards are against James, Larry Hughes and the rest of the Cavaliers. They can’t win this series, but they won’t admit it to themselves. They’re like the jilted lover who thinks things will be righted and all will be back to normal in a matter of days.

To a degree, they’re right. It’s just that things won’t really be right until next season, when the Wizards are healthy again.

But right now, with or without Haywood — unless, of course, he has a 20-point, 20-rebound game or two in him — the remaining games in this series are nothing more than formality.

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