Over the next few days, Basket Bawful and Free Darko will be previewing each NBA Playoff series. Basket Bawful looks at the Eastern Conference today, finishing with the series between the Washington Wizards and the Cleveland Cavaliers, which begins Saturday.
This is going to be the most (and only?) exciting first-round matchup in the East, and second only to Suns-Spurs in the West. The drama has been building for weeks, and now these teams are going to go the hell at it. Cancel your dates (or make her/him come over and serve you beer). Take a leave of absence from work. Tell your mom you'll call her in a few weeks. Put Papa John's on speed dial. But whatever you do, DO NOT MISS THIS SERIES.
The season series: It was a 2-2 tie, with Washington winning the bookends and Cleveland taking the gooey center games. The first two "contests" were complete blowouts: The Wizards won by 19 in December and the Cavaliers won by 36 in January. The second two games were total barnburners: In February, Cleveland won 90-89 after LeBron James hit two freethrows with 7.8 seconds left; in March, Washington won 101-99 when LeBron got called for an offensive foul with 19.4 seconds left and then missed a 27-footer at the buzzer while getting the wet blanket treatment from DeShawn Stevenson.
Good news for the Wizards: Well, first of all, their big guns — Antawn Jamison, Caron Butler and Gilbert Arenas — are all back and (seemingly) healthy (or at least injury-free). Second of all, King James isn't healthy. In case you haven't heard (what, are you living under a rock?), Bron-Bron's back is hurting, which is probably the result of his season-long Atlas impersonation. And you can see that pain written in his splits: All of his numbers, particularly his rebound and assist totals, are down in April. He's still attacking the hole, but he can't hit the boards the way he usually does. Maybe he'll be fine once the series starts, maybe he won't. But if he isn't, I don't see Wally Szczerbiak or Ben Wallace picking up the slack, do you? (Man, they could sure use Larry Hughes right about now! I keed, I keeeeeeed!)
Bad news for the Wizards: They've been talking so much trash about LeBron and the Cavaliers that Charles Barkley recently came out and said: "I think the Washington Wizards have got to be the dumbest team in the history of civilization." You know it's reached the crisis point when Sir Charles makes an unintentional Waltonism. The Locksmith has gone on the record as saying that LeBron is "overrated," while Agent Zero has been spouting off on his blog about how "everybody wants Cleveland in that first round" and that the Wizards are going to "Bush" — that is, distract — LeBron with Stevenson's defense/offense combination so that they can sneak off with some wins.
This tactic backfired on Chuck Person in the first round of the 1991 playoffs, and it seems like a pretty big chance to take now. Why rile up LeBron? Why give the Cavaliers ammunition? I know that most (if not all) professional basketball players are raving egomaniacs and that they're gonna talk junk in the locker room ... but leave it there. You don't stare down an oncoming train, you don't shoot a bear in the ass with a BB gun, and you never, ever, ever tug on Superman's cape unless you're packing a fistful of Kryptonite. And guess what, Washington Wizards? Kryptonite doesn't exist.
Reality check: Angry or not, it seems pretty unlikely that LeBron is going to recapture last season's magic and make it back to the NBA Finals. Heck, he might not even make it out of the first round. Seriously. This Cavaliers team is poorly constructed and even more poorly coached. Ben Wallace is aging at an exponential rate (I expect him to burst into dust any minute), Wally Szczerbiak looks completely lost in Cleveland's one-play offense, and their best "shooter" is Delonte West. I would not be surprised to see LeBron choke a bitch, and if that bitch isn't Stevenson, it could very well be Cavaliers 2 through 12.
Cavaliers player(s) to watch: LeBron James, LeBron James, and, of course, LeBron James. How badly is he really hurting? Can he do it all by himself again? It'll also be interesting to see what Big Ben has left. My guess is "nothing," but we'll see. And who's going to be the third scoring option (after Zydrunas Ilgauskas)? West? Szczerbiak? Devin Brown?
Wizards player(s) to keep an eye on: DeShawn Stevenson, for one. He's officially thrown down the gauntlet. Actually, you know what? He's slapped LeBron upside the head with it. Now it's time to put his money where his extra-large mouth is. If he can't contain LeBron, the Wizards don't have a chance. Also, it'll be interesting to see whether Arenas is ready for playoff-level basketball. Also, Brendan Haywood needs to protect the paint from LeBron and his many basket attacks ... because nobody else on the Wizards roster seems to be able to do that.
Key(s) to the series: LeBron's back. Is it healthy? The "other" Cavaliers. Are they ready to contribute? Hell, are they even capable of it? DeShawn Stevenson. Will he hold down The King or get eaten alive. Cleveland's defense. Can they keep the Washington's Big Three from scoring 20 per game each? The Wizards' chemistry. Now that everybody's back and playing, can they adjust to working together toward one common goal?
Prediction: If LeBron gets past his back woes, Cavs in seven. If he doesn't, Wizards in six.