- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 25, 2008

When the NBA’s schedule makers drew up some of the most compelling matchups this past offseason, Washington at Cleveland on Christmas Day had all the makings for must-see TV.

LeBron James was fresh off his finest season, and his Cavaliers had added pieces to improve.

The Wizards had just re-signed Gilbert Arenas to a six-year, $111 million contract, and they were expected to have a healthy Agent Zero at their disposal. They also re-signed two-time All-Star forward Antawn Jamison to a four-year, $50 million deal.

The matchup would feature teams that had faced each other in the playoffs the last three seasons, with Cleveland coming out on top each time. And there was the bad blood between James and Wizards guard DeShawn Stevenson - a cryptic feud that highlighted last spring’s playoff series between the teams.

The meeting was supposed to show whether a healthy Wizards team was capable of holding court against King James.

But rather than all that playing out in a manner worthy of the 8 p.m. broadcast on TNT on Thursday, the two teams have gone in drastically different directions.

James has garnered MVP consideration with his averages of 27.6 points, 6.8 rebounds and 6.3 assists. His 24-4 Cavaliers own a league-best 14-0 home record.

Meanwhile, not much has gone right for the Wizards. Arenas remains out, rehabilitating his knee with no timetable set for his return. Center Brendan Haywood just got the cast removed from his surgically repaired right wrist but likely won’t return for another two to four months. Stevenson removed himself from the starting lineup because of career-low production. The Wizards started the year 1-10 and got coach Eddie Jordan fired, and they head into Cleveland with a 4-22 record - the worst start in the 47-year-old franchise’s history.

It doesn’t have the makings of must-see TV anymore, but since the NBA doesn’t have flex scheduling, the show will go on.

In the visiting locker room at Charlotte on Tuesday, some of the Wizards players jokingly wondered whose fault it was that they were playing in a nationally televised game on Christmas. Some considered it Arenas’ fault because he signed the large deal and everyone expected him to be back to his All-Star form by now.

Others blamed it on Stevenson’s tiff with James.

Cavaliers fans ridiculed Stevenson often during last season’s first-round series, and the nine-year veteran joked that now, especially considering his struggles, he would play wearing earmuffs to block out the abuse.

But regardless of the lopsided matchup or the size of viewing audience, the Wizards aim to “bring it” to the best of their abilities.

“Obviously with the record being the way it is, it’s disturbing, but at the same time, nothing’s going to change,” forward Caron Butler said. “The record is what it is, and we still have a schedule to uphold. We have to go out there and perform at a high level night in and night out and be professional. As one of the leaders, I’m going to lead the team night in and night out to play with a high level of energy night in and night out.”

Interim coach Ed Tapscott considers the game as an opportunity for the Wizards to measure themselves against one of the league’s elite teams.

“They’re playing some of the best basketball in the league. They may have the very best player in the league, arguably,” he said. “We really need to bring a lot of fire. … Anytime you have a nationally televised game, you want to show well. You want to play well. You should want to test yourself against the best teams in the league. You get a chance to play them, so we’ll certainly talk about all those things.”

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