- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Wizards will eliminate the Cavaliers in six games after securing a split in the first two games of the series in Cleveland.

This, of course, is not etched in stone. If it were, I would be bound for Las Vegas instead of Cleveland.

The Wizards are the more complete and versatile team but must cope with an unsettling variable: LeBron James, the player of a zillion emotion-filled faces.

The element of James comes with an unanswerable question: Will the referees genuflect before his highness?

As you know, James is sometimes permitted to play by a set of rules especially tailored to his gifts.

He is allowed to stiff arm and bowl over defenders on his journeys to the basket. He also is allowed to travel long distances without ever dribbling the basketball.

Any referee who momentarily forgets that James is a combination of Mother Teresa and Mohandas Gandhi in short pants is liable to be subjected to one of his Jim Carrey-like facial contortions.

No one beyond Cleveland likes seeing James impersonate the Carrey character Stanley Ipkiss in “The Mask.”

If the referees vaguely enforce the NBA rules on James, even if they apologize to him while doing so, the Wizards will be in the fine shape.

As it is, I do not expect the Wizards to win Game 1 today. The Wizards probably will need one game to reacclimate themselves to Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler and to the ear-ringing playoff environment in Cleveland.

The 12:30 p.m. tip-off does not bode well for the road team either.

Whenever there is a peculiar element attached to a game, such as players hitting the floor when they normally would be lounging around at home or in a hotel room, it inevitably hurts the road team the most because of all the conditions already stacked against it.

As Eddie Jordan says, “You have to play longer, harder and smarter than the other team [in the playoffs]. It will be a hostile environment there. You have to get through those things and show your experience. You have to show the experience that made you successful.”

The Wizards became a mentally sturdier and more well-rounded team this season because of the 69-game absence of Arenas and the 23-game absence of Butler.

“We’re tougher, more resilient, more experienced, no question,” Jordan says.

Roger Mason shot nearly 40 percent from 3-point distance and averaged a career-high 9.1 points to warrant a nice payday this offseason.

Brendan Haywood, with no Poet around to spin sonnets that toyed with his emotional framework, had a career season in points, rebounds and assists.

Andray Blatche showed flashes of being able to develop into something more than a role player. Although the 21-year-old Blatche has completed his third season in the NBA, he remains the youngest player on the team’s roster. His future, given his size and skill level, could be exceedingly bright with greater maturity and commitment.

The bench work of Mason, Blatche, Darius Songaila, Antonio Daniels, Nick Young and Dominic McGuire gives the Wizards a plethora of options that Jordan never has had during his four previous seasons in Tony Cheng’s neighborhood.

The Wizards no longer need big games from Arenas, Butler and Antawn Jamison to be successful, as was often the case in the past. They merely need two of the three to have competent performances.

The Cavaliers, meanwhile, remain in a kind of basketball purgatory since the three-way trade in February that yielded Ben Wallace, Wally Szczerbiak, Joe Smith and Delonte West. The Cavaliers have forged a ho-hum 15-13 record with their retooled roster and appear vulnerable.

Other than James, the Cavaliers have no dynamic scoring option. Zydrunas Ilgauskas is the team’s second-leading scorer at 14.1 points a game. The one-man gang was sufficient in the Eastern Conference last season.

It will not be so in these playoffs, at least not against the Wizards, who are not the crippled bunch of last spring.

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