- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 20, 2008

CLEVELAND - For much of this season, strong bench play has proved a saving grace for the Washington Wizards. If a starter was injured or struggling, coach Eddie Jordan and his starters knew they could count on a player coming off the bench to provide a spark.

However, such a spark was basically non-existent in yesterday’s playoff opener against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Gilbert Arenas ” still working his way back into top form after missing 66 games because of knee surgery ” came off the bench for 24 points and three assists in 28 minutes. But Arenas isn’t a true reserve player, and Roger Mason Jr., Andray Blatche and Darius Songaila combined for just three points.

Blatche, who averaged 7.5 points this season, didn’t take a shot and had two rebounds in nine minutes. Mason (9.1 points) was 0-for-4 in 12 minutes. Songaila (8.7 points in the second half of the season) had three points in 20 minutes.

Those three all saw significant playing time in last year’s playoff series, when both Arenas and Caron Butler were hurt. The difference was the players having to readjust to their roles as their minutes diminish and Arenas’ increase.

“It’s different with everybody healthy,” said Mason, who led the Wizards in 3-point shooting with 39.8 percent. “Your opportunities are much less, and you’re there for shorter periods of time. You’ve just got to adjust to having everybody around. This is our first game with everyone back, so I think next game will be better.”

Jordan said the struggles were not a surprise to him because he expected it to be difficult for the backups to settle back into their original roles, but he said he plans on finding different ways to help the players find their rhythm.

Antawn Jamison expressed the importance of the bench players finding their rhythm as the Wizards try to win in Cleveland tomorrow night before heading back to the District for Games 3 and 4. The team captain sees Game 2 being significantly different.

“Mason, I’m not worried about him. I know he’s going to come in Game 2 and be a little more comfortable,” Jamison said. “You could tell he was a little hesitant to let it go and just play his style of game. But I think as a team, as a coaching staff, it was just an adjustment period for us. … They will have an impact as the series goes on.”

Haywood active

Wizards center Brendan Haywood got off to a strong start, scoring 10 of his team’s first 12 points and grabbing five first-half rebounds. But foul trouble limited his production in the second half, and he finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds.

Haywood also tangled with Cleveland’s LeBron James in the final seconds of the first half.

With the Wizards bringing the ball up the court, Haywood set a pick that floored James and drew a foul. Haywood didn’t move although James was stretched out between his feet and instead questioned the call.

James took offense to Haywood standing over him and jumped up throwing an elbow at the center’s crotch, then at his head. Haywood went at James, who was quickly surrounded by his teammates.

Jamison rushed to Haywood’s defense, going at Zydrunas Ilgauskas before the skirmish was broken up. Haywood, James and Jamison all received technical fouls.

“It was nothing really. I set a blind screen and I thought he flopped on it,” Haywood said. “I went to talk to [official] Bob [Delaney] about it, and [James] took offense that I was standing over him. At that point in the game, he’s not gonna get up and do anything. What’s he gonna do? Throw a punch? Get thrown out of the game? Shoot, I would’ve been the MVP like Robert Horry, if I got him to do that.

“He should just chill out, play ball and it’s going to be a rough-and-tough series. He’s going to get fouled if he comes to the basket, but no one’s trying to hurt him.”

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