Underdog Barks, But Has No Bite
I n listening to Antonio Daniels the past two weeks, we’ve gleaned two things. 1) By responsibly forecasting his team’s season will be over in two weeks, America is disrespecting the Wizards; and 2) in general, so is humanity.
A.D. is the de facto starting point guard for Washington’s beat-down pro basketball team, which faces LeBron James and four other scrubs in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference playoffs this afternoon at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.
After Gil the Thrill and Bron-Bron went six riveting games a year ago, the hype should be leaning toward “Part Deux at the Q.” Or something like that.
But the Wizards are without the injured Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler and a prayer. They are missing 47.5 points per game and all that
DeShawn Stevenson and Jarvis Hayes, bless their free agent hearts, are not afforded the same respect by officials at the end of games as Arenas and Butler. Antawn Jamison, the lone star left standing, has to score 48 points some nights to keep them in contests. And that’s not even enough to prevent the Wizards from losing eight of their last 10 games.
The glue is simply not holding. Eddie Jordan’s cut-and-paste collage is crumbling. Anyone watching knows there are legitimate reasons that this series has five-games-and-out written all over it.
But don’t tell Daniels, who has been chastising the locals for not waving pom-poms and wearing their Wizards Underoos to bed. Don’t explain that the Wizards are a longer shot to spring a first-round upset than any playoff team — a 30-to-1 underdog, according to some oddsmakers. (Washington is actually given less chance of upsetting the Cavs than the Warriors have of knocking off Dallas or Orlando toppling Detroit.)
Daniels is in bunker-down mode, that athletic mind-set preferred by all overwhelming underdogs who just can’t take the negativity anymore. “We’re being extremely disrespected by every media outlet that there is out there,” Daniels began, “so I think myself and my teammates need to take it personal, take it as a smack in the face.”
Memo to A.D., who we know means well: You disrespected yourselves, at times, during the regular season. That’s why most realists are picking the Wizards to go home early.
The belief that the Wizards might get swept by Cleveland does not have to do with Arenas and Butler stuck on the injured list; it has to do with the kind of team that emerged after they went down, the lack of mental toughness needed to close out opponents. And, frankly, the up-and-down nature of the Wizards before their best players got hurt didn’t help, either.
When one or more of The Big Three have been out this season, the Wizards went 10-29. Stevenson was a nice find for $932,0000, especially after the Wizards let Jared Jeffries go to New York for too much money a year after they let Larry Hughes go to Cleveland for too much money.
But at some point, this revolving shooting-guard game catches up to you. Stevenson is a nice complementary, spot-up shooter when everyone is healthy. When they’re not, he can’t initiate his own offense to win a game in the final two minutes. That’s what you get for less than $1 million.
Yes, the Wizards were competitive in almost every game since Arenas tore his meniscus and was forced to undergo season-ending surgery. But so is every bad team in the league that can’t finish. (That’s an ode to Memphis and Milwaukee.)
It’s too bad there is no payback angle surrounding this series after that wrenching loss a year ago to the Cavs. Especially after Dan Gilbert, the Cleveland owner, raised the stakes for his own franchise last week.
“We got to the second round [of the playoffs last year], and I’d certainly like to see us grow,” Gilbert said. “The tree is either growing or dying; it’s one way or the other. . . . To call [the season] a success, I’d certainly like to see us go up a notch.”
Eastern Conference finals or bust. That’s Gilbert’s message to GM Danny Ferry, Coach Mike Brown and LeBron. It’s that kind of proactive management that forces a middling playoff team to figure out whether it’s a contender or pretender.
It’s impossible to evaluate the Wizards by the same bench mark, to ask whether they are in the same place, a little better or markedly worse than a year ago.
Darius Songaila is finally finding his legs and his stroke. Etan Thomas is showing he belongs in the starting lineup. Hayes is giddy after injuries killed his first two chances at the postseason. If Daniels were coming off the bench and the big guns were all firing, actual conclusions could come from the Wizards’ performance against Cleveland. But with all the facts on hand — and with all due respect to the competitive heart of Antonio Daniels — five games and out is being generous.
“I’m not looking to go out there just because it’s the playoffs and score 30, 40 points,” guard DeShawn Stevenson said.
“We’re being extremely disrespected by every media outlet that there is out there,” said Antonio Daniels, here with Coach Eddie Jordan. Daniels called it a “smack in the face.”