Un­der­dog Barks, But Has No Bite

The Washington Post Sunday - - Sports -

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

phe­nom­e­nal swag.

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.

MITCHELL LAY­TON — NBAE/GETTY IMAGES

“I’m not look­ing to go out there just be­cause it’s the play­offs and score 30, 40 points,” guard DeShawn Steven­son said.

BY JOHN MCDONNELL — THE WASH­ING­TON POST

“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.”

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