- The Washington Times - Friday, April 18, 2008

Perhaps no team in NBA history has entered a conference quarterfinal against a team that in years past has seemed to have its number and still boasted the swagger of the Washington Wizards.

Never mind that they fell to the Cleveland Cavaliers in six games in the 2006 playoffs when LeBron James drew a double team with time winding down and found backup guard Damon Jones for a game-winning, series-clinching 3-pointer.

Forget last season when the Wizards entered the playoffs without their top two scoring threats in All-Stars Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler and, despite putting up a decent fight, got swept by James and Co.

The Cleveland-inflicted eliminations did nothing to diminish the Wizards’ confidence. It didn’t cause them to crave an opening matchup against any team but the Cavaliers.

Discouraged by the past? No.

Intimidated? Absolutely not.

“At this level, why would you be intimidated by anybody?” point guard Antonio Daniels said. “We’ve beaten some of the best teams in the league this year. So what do we have to be intimidated for? We know that’s a good basketball team. They have one of the best players, if not the most talented players in this league. But … we’re a pretty good team ourselves. So we don’t have anything to be intimidated by.”

So, in so many words, the Wizards say, Bring on the Cavaliers.

It’s almost as if beating the Cavaliers would serve as a rite of passage, an indication the Wizards are ready to transform from postseason participants to contenders finally getting over the hump.

It’s nothing new in the NBA — the hump.

In the 1980s, Detroit’s “Bad Boys” first had to overcome the legendary Celtics before they could make their mark in time, winning two straight titles. In 1988, 1989 and 1990 Michael Jordan’s Bulls fell three straight years to the same Pistons before overcoming them in a fourth attempt and going on to win the first of three consecutive championships.

Although Washington has yet to overcome Cleveland in the opening round of the playoffs, it’s only fitting that the Wizards run into them again.

“To win throughout the playoffs, you have to take your hits,” Wizards coach Eddie Jordan said. “And like we’ve seen through the history of the NBA, whether it was the Detroit Pistons, whether it was the Lakers, whether it was Houston — whatever it was, those teams had to experience the playoffs, losing and then getting over the hump. I hope we’ve had our share of losing so we can keep advancing.”

Health and experience are the key factors that fuel the Wizards’ confidence. Although it’s the Eastern Conference, which is significantly weaker than the West, the team still reached the playoffs, earning the fifth seed despite playing 66 straight games without Arenas and enduring a 19-game stretch without Butler (labral tear in his left hip).

With both Arenas and Butler injured at the end of last season, the Wizards were forced to rely on untested reserves in the playoffs. Those same players saw extensive playing time this season because of injuries. Instead of treading cautiously into the postseason like they did a year ago, they charge ahead with confidence.

In addition to being more seasoned — opposed to 2006 — and fully loaded — contrary to 2007 — the Wizards say the key to success will be defense. The team in the offseason added defensive specialist Randy Ayers to Jordan’s staff to bolster Washington’s biggest weakness.

And after giving up an average of 104.9 points a game and being outrebounded 43.0-41.2 last season, the Wizards have improved, limiting opponents to 99.2 points and narrowly outrebounding their foes 41.6-41.2.

The players grasp the importance of a better defensive effort, having learned from the past and adapted Ayers’ philosophy.

“We talked about this before the season got started. We all had a chip on our shoulder,” forward Antawn Jamison said. “We all had a lot to prove. We all wanted to do this. We all wanted to do that. We had the injuries last year, then had Gil out for a good bit this year. This is the first time we’ve been healthy in a while. We feel confident about the makeup of our team. We feel good about our bench. They’ve gotten to play a good bit this season, so we have a lot to feel good about. We’re confident, man.”

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