- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 19, 2008

Speaking to the media for the first time since before his April 2 return from a 66-game layoff following knee surgery, Washington Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas said yesterday he feels great and he and his teammates are excited to take on the challenge of beating the Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs for the first time in three attempts.

To start the playoffs, Arenas will continue to come off the bench, playing 25 to 30 minutes a game. But the three-time All-Star said other than starting, his role on the team hasn’t changed.

“I’m an assassin. I get buckets,” said Arenas, who has averaged 14.6 points and 3.8 assists in 21.0 minutes in five games since his return. “I haven’t played in a long time, but my shot is still there. When I come off the bench, there’s going to be some trouble.”

Arenas on April 12 had his finest game since his return. He scored 12 of his 20 points in the fourth quarter against Philadelphia and finished with seven rebounds and five assists in the Wizards’ 109-93 win.

With Arenas and small forward Caron Butler (bruised knee) back, the Wizards are the healthiest they have been all season.

“We’re excited,” Arenas said. “We haven’t been together in the playoffs for two years. We can’t wait to get out there. There’s a lot of hype in this series, and we’re ready to get to Cleveland.”

But the Cavaliers find themselves in a rather contrasting situation.

They have battled injuries in the final weeks of the regular season.

Franchise player LeBron James, center Zydrunas Ilgauskas and forward Ben Wallace all have fought back problems down the stretch of the season, and guard Daniel Gibson missed a month of play with an ankle injury. And Tuesday, guard Sasha Pavlovic suffered a sprained ankle and is expected to miss two to three weeks.

In addition to battling the injury bug, the Cavaliers, who went 4-4 in the final two weeks of the regular season, still are trying to develop team chemistry after a February trade that brought in four new players.

Seeking a spark that would help them take that next step toward winning a championship, Cleveland — which last year reached the NBA Finals before being swept by San Antonio — in February shipped out Larry Hughes, Drew Gooden, Donyell Marshall and Ira Newble in exchange for Seattle’s Delonte West and Wally Szczerbiak and Chicago’s Ben Wallace and Joe Smith.

The Cavaliers gave up their third-leading scorer (Hughes) and their second-leading rebounder and fourth-leading scorer (Gooden). But team management expected the move to give them another perimeter threat in Szczerbiak, a rebounding force in Wallace, a solid point guard in West and another well-rounded veteran in Smith.

So far, the deal hasn’t provided much of a boost. Cleveland is 15-13 since the trade. West and Smith have made decent contributions, but Wallace and Szczerbiak have yet to deliver.

“I think it was huge losing Larry and Drew,” Wizards guard DeShawn Stevenson said. They were both big factors in them winning last year. Truthfully, I’m happy they’re gone.”

Hughes — who played for Washington from 2002 to 2005 — had great familiarity with the Wizards’ schemes.

Although the Cavaliers know the Wizards well, they will miss the knowledge Hughes provided.

“Losing Larry is going to hurt them a lot, especially in this series,” Wizards center Brendan Haywood said. “He knew [our] plays, he was lots of times running them with us, calling them out. And they lot a lot of athleticism on the wing when they traded away Larry.”

But the Wizards won’t discount the Cavaliers. The team’s coaches and veteran leaders are stressing to their teammates that they can’t get caught up focusing on what Cleveland’s personnel. Regardless of what complementary pieces the Cavaliers have on the floor, it all begins and ends with James.

“Well, we’ve been burned all kinds of ways [by James],” Jordan said. “We doubled him and Damon Jones comes off the bench after sitting 47 minutes and 50 seconds to hit a 3 to win the series. We guard [James] one-on-one, he gets to the basket. We push him baseline and he gets to the basket. I’ve seen him destroy one of the best defensive teams in the league in the playoffs last year [in the Pistons] by scoring 24 points in the fourth quarter.”

The key to success, the Wizards said, is to exercise patience and good judgment on their offensive end, limit Cleveland in one of its key strengths, which is rebounding, and not allowing the Cavaliers to get into a run-and-gun game, which James always fuels.

“The most important thing is you have to limit their transition opportunities,” Wizards forward Antawn Jamison said. “You start missing crazy shots and they start getting the rebounds and LeBron starts going downhill and finding Damon Jones and Daniel Gibson for 3s, it can be a long night.”

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