- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 19, 2008

Breaking down the matchups

POINT GUARD: ANTONIO DANIELS vs. DELONTE WEST

Daniels will continue to start while Gilbert Arenas’ minutes remain limited as he continues to work his way back from knee surgery. Averaging 8.4 points and 4.8 assists, Daniels is far from the explosive threat that Arenas presents, but the 11th year pro gives the Wizards a strong veteran leader and solid facilitator. … West has started 26 games since coming to Cleveland via trade from Seattle. The fourth-year pro has helped cure the Cavaliers’ point guard deficiency caused by Eric Snow’s injury. He is solid, averaging 10.3 points and 4.5 assists for the Cavaliers, but not exactly dangerous. He also is still developing, having played shooting guard in college.

Edge: Wizards

SHOOTING GUARD: DESHAWN STEVENSON vs. WALLY SZCZERBIAK

In addition to being one of the team’s top two perimeter threats, shooting 38.3 percent from 3-point range and making at least four 3-pointers in a game 16 times this season, Stevenson (11.2 points) prides himself on being the team’s top defender. He and forward Caron Butler will switch off covering LeBron James. He also started every game despite battling an assortment of injuries all season. … With Sasha Pavlovic out two to three weeks with a sprained ankle, Szczerbiak, who was brought in from Seattle, likely will get the start for Cleveland. He isn’t the shooting threat the team hoped he could be, averaging just 8.2 points while shooting 36.5 percent.

Edge: Wizards

SMALL FORWARD: CARON BUTLER vs. LEBRON JAMES

Butler had a career year, averaging 20.3 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.9 assists and 2.21 steals. He has struggled with durability, missing 19 games with a small labral tear in his left hip, one game with two sprained ankles, one with a strained hamstring and the last three with a bruised right knee. He gives the Wizards a bigger defender to put on LeBron James. … James had one of the best regular seasons in league history, winning the scoring title with 30.0 points a game while pulling down 7.9 rebounds and handing out a team-high 7.2 assists. He has had the Wizards number in the last two postseasons, averaging 32.5 points in 10 playoff matchups.

Edge: Cavaliers

CENTER: BRENDAN HAYWOOD vs. ZYDRUNAS ILGAUSKAS

After struggling with consistency in both production and playing time last season, Haywood has had the best year of his career, averaging 10.6 points and 7.2 rebounds. Wizards coach Eddie Jordan said: “It’s said it takes time for big men in this league to develop and I think this year [Haywood] has definitely turned the corner to becoming a dominant center.” … Ilgauskas has missed time with foot and back injuries this season but is the team’s second-leading scorer (14.1 points) and leading rebounder (9.3 rebounds). If healthy, he can cause the Wizards problems. On Jan. 23, he scored 24 points on 10-for-10 shooting.

Edge: Cavaliers

POWER FORWARD: ANTAWN JAMISON vs. BEN WALLACE

With Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler out for stretches this season, Jamison was the constant for the Wizards, averaging a team-high 21.4 points and 10.2 rebounds. In last year’s playoff series with the Cavaliers, Jamison averaged 32.0 points and 9.5 rebounds. Also the team captain, he keeps the Wizards grounded with strong veteran leadership. … Wallace isn’t the force he once was with Detroit. In 22 games with Cleveland, he averaged just 7.4 rebounds and a team-high 1.68 blocks. Scoring has never been his forte. He averages just 4.2 points. Wallace has been slowed by back spasms since coming to Cleveland.

Edge: Wizards

BENCH: WASHINGTON vs. CLEVELAND

He came back too late into the season to be considered for the Sixth Man Award, but no team in the postseason has as dangerous a player coming off the bench as the Wizards do. Gilbert Arenas’ minutes are still limited to 25 a game, but coach Eddie Jordan hopes they can increase to 28 to 30 in the playoffs. The Wizards hope the playoffs feature Arenas putting up similar numbers to what he did to Philadelphia last week ago: 20 points, seven rebounds and five assists in 25 minutes. Because of injuries, the Wizards have developed their younger players. Roger Mason Jr. (39.8 percent 3-point shooting) and forward Darius Songaila (8.7 points in the second half of season) give the team strong threats off the bench. … Cleveland will use Devin Brown to matchup with Arenas off the bench, but it doesn’t have the overall depth to rival Washington’s.

Edge: Wizards

COACHES: EDDIE JORDAN vs. MIKE BROWN

Despite having to go without his top scorer for much of the season and his second-leading scorer for additional stretches, Jordan guided the Wizards to their fourth straight playoff appearance. This season, he added defensive specialist Randy Ayers to his staff to improve what had been a glaring weakness. While still a work in progress, the Wizards now have a stronger defense to complement Jordan’s Princeton offense, which his players describe as “an equal opportunity offense.” … Brown is in his third year in Cleveland and has the luxury of having one of the league’s most talented players on his roster. He has admittedly had trouble getting his new pieces to mesh, which could become Cleveland’s undoing this series.

Edge: Wizards

THREE KEYS TO THE SERIES

1. Health

The Wizards have battled it during the regular season but appear to have healed just in time to make a playoff push. Cleveland has had it’s share of injuries during the season and just lost shooting guard Sasha Pavlovic for the next two to three weeks. Wizards coach Eddie Jordan said none of his players are physically limited going forward and that Arenas’ minutes are being monitored as doctor’s precaution. Caron Butler is recovering from the bruised right knee that forced him to sit out the final three games of the regular season. Meanwhile, LeBron James, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Ben Wallace have still experienced back pain. For these two teams, staying healthy could easily make the difference.

2. Limiting James

LeBron James has had his way with the Wizards in 10 previous playoff meetings the last two seasons. He has averaged 32.5 points, and when he isn’t scoring, he’s finding teammates for shots that translate into made shots. DeShawn Stevenson has laid down the gauntlet but will share defensive duties with Caron Butler. The Wizards know shutting down James is easier said than done and have said the main thing they must prevent him from doing is driving the lane at will and scoring on dunks and putbacks.

3. Managing Arenas

With Gilbert Arenas still being limited in his minutes, Eddie Jordan must pick and choose where to play his three-time All-Star. In the last two weeks he has entered late in the first quarter and played a stretch that extends into the second quarter, rests, then comes back in late in the half. The same applies to the third and fourth quarters. As he continues to get his legs back, he’ll definitely have the ball in his hands late in the fourth quarter. If the Wizards can get the scoring burst off the bench from Arenas similar to what he produced against Philadelphia, their chances are great.

PREDICTION

A strong start will be key for the Wizards. Getting at least one of the games in Cleveland before coming back to Washington, will be huge. They seem to be peaking at the right time, while Cleveland still has yet to find its identity after the revamping. If Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison can produce as they have during the regular season, with strong contributions both defensively from DeShawn Stevenson and Brendan Haywood, Gilbert Arenas, Roger Mason Jr. and Darius Songaila will have to maintain the pace when they take the floor. The sooner the Wizards can wrap up the series the better. They don’t want to go back to Cleveland for a Game 7 and risk James getting crucial calls from the officials.

Wizards in six

— Mike Jones

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