Thursday, November 02, 2006

Whither Gilbert?

The Washington Wizards began this season the same way they ended the last one - losing a close, hard-fought battle against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Now you might argue that there is nothing more irrelevant than an opening game in the NBA season, to which I would reply, "Did you know they've been playing hockey for almost a month in the NHL?"

Anyway, my residence in Wizards' fandom appears to be a lifelong assignment, so I watched pretty much the whole game last night on ESPN. I was surprised by several LeBron James-related items during the broadcast. First, James is obviously an awesome talent, but ESPN did not constantly bow before his greatness and generally showed a much more balanced picture than I had expected. Second, I like his Nike commercials more than I thought I would, even though they are shown constantly. And third, he may be the Jordan heir apparent, but the officials have not been informed, as he was whistled for traveling (!) and got a jump ball call when driving to the basket against Brendan Haywood (Brendan Haywood!). He can still become MJ, but he's going to have to get meaner so that he is feared by both opponents and teammates. James seems to smile because he wants you to smile with him; Jordan smiled because he was killing you and there was nothing you could do about it.

Now, the Wizards. Very little has changed in terms of personnel. Washington basically traded Jared Jeffries for DeShawn Stevenson, giving away some defense and speed for strength and midrange game, but changing very little of the overall team makeup or chemistry . The Wiz will still go as the Big Three (Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison, and Caron Butler) go, and Arenas clanked shot after shot last night until finally scoring his first points near the end of the third quarter. Difficult for the Wizards to beat anyone in that circumstance and nearly impossiible on the road against a playoff team. To his credit, Arenas racked up 11 assists, but he has to be the go-to-guy in a game like this one. Butler was his usual tough self, scoring 23 points on high percentage shots, and Jamison popped in a quiet 20 with his inside-outside game.

Etan Thomas was the major surprise for the Wiz, converting 7-7 from the field. Admittedly, the Cavs big men Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Drew Gooden, and Donyell Marshall aren't exactly NBA All-Defense candidates, but the Wizards have lacked interior scoring, so any improvement there is a major upgrade. Thomas' effort also seemed to motivate Haywood, who gave Washington some fourth-quarter punch. Antonio Daniels was solid off the bench as always, perfect from the free throw line (6-6), and on the court in the crunch. And a healthy Jarvis Hayes is a great sight; he looked good even though he missed some pretty good looks in the final minutes.

The only guy who performed below expectations was Arenas; if he'd been half his normal self, the Wizards would have won their fourth straight season opener. Washington will be a tough out for a lot of teams this season. If Hayes stays healthy (a big if), and Thomas is more than just a one-game wonder, the Wizards could be better than last year, much to the surprise of many who underrated them again in their preseason predictions.

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