WASHINGTON — Zydrunas Ilgauskas wasn't just trying to be generous. To make his point, the Cleveland center leaned his 7-foot-3 frame in front of LeBron James to get close to the microphone. "Every game we had to work for. This was a tough series, trust me," said Ilgauskas, earnestly. "We know the Wizards have a lot of pride and nobody wants to lose a series 4-0."
Mike Brown even seemed a bit guilty in victory. "The Wizards did a terrific job. They could easily have caved at any point in the series," the Cavaliers coach said after his team was pushed hard to the final minutes of all four games. The Cavs' thoughts might as well have been in cartoon bubbles over their heads: "Could we, should we, beat them if both teams were healthy?"
Franchises are so hard to build and careers are so short, with a player's prime perhaps a decade, that we hate to see any good team cheated of its chance at a title run by injuries to its stars. Few sights are more frustrating. The point of games is to get a resolution to the simple question: Who's better? Now for the Wizards, we're stuck with, "Who knows?"
The loss of Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler in the weeks before the postseason is doubly bedeviling because the door of playoff possibilities, so often slammed in the Wizards' face for the last 25 years, seemed to be cracked slightly ajar. The defending NBA champion Miami Heat has already been swept and the regular season-best Mavericks soon followed them. In any sport, once the favorites start stumbling, you never know who will discover inspiration or just get lucky and steal a title.
Two years ago, few liked the chances of the Pittsburgh Steelers when the NFL playoffs began. Last spring, the aging Heat wasn't considered the equal of the best in the West. And just six months ago, the St. Louis Cardinals entered the playoffs with only 83 wins.
But, in sports, the unexpected arrives in the postseason. A beloved veteran such as Jerome Bettis becomes the focus of the Steelers' resolve. A coach thought past his prime, like Miami's Pat Riley, gets into one last championship fight. Or the Mets' best pitchers get injured just before the playoffs and the Cards awake in the World Series where the stage-struck Tigers hand them the crown.
That's why Wizards fans hated to walk out of Verizon Center on Monday night after seeing their most promising team in many years get swept. Maybe Cleveland's Big Three of James, Ilgauskas and Larry Hughes would have won anyway, just as Cleveland did in six games last spring. King James and his court looked delighted to have avoided the test.
"Two years ago we made it to the second round of the playoffs, then last year we lost in the first round and now we get swept," said Coach Eddie Jordan, refusing to make excuses. "I don't want to go in that direction. I'll leave the asterisks to Phil Jackson."
Nevertheless, credit is due. Basketball is the hardest sport in which to compensate for lost stars. The Redskins, for example, lost Art Monk after nine games of the '87 season, yet revamped their wide receivers and won a Super Bowl with the Smurfs. Pitching staffs can be patched together to survive October. But in the NBA, few teams, under such severe duress have kept their composure as well as the Wizards without Agent Zero and Butler, who combined for 47.5 points per game.
The Wizards' effort was even more admirable since 7-foot Brendan Haywood sulked his way so deep into the doghouse that he played only 34 minutes in the series and none in the last game. Then, he left the bench before the final game ended. Somehow, Jordan kept morale high despite this headache in their midst.
"This whole season has been like a runaway train. We haven't reflected back," said Jordan, who coached the East in the All-Star game when the Wizards still had their conference's best record. "I've never been part of something like these injuries. Those two guys bring more than their numbers, which are huge. It's their personalities, too. They are tough."
No tougher than Jordan and his resourceful staff who had to reinvent a team on the fly, giving every player a substantially different role. Antawn Jamison coped best, averaging 32 points and 9.8 rebounds in the playoffs. "He showed consummate leadership. He was everywhere. Everything went through him on offense and everybody knew it would," said Jordan. "He [excelled] in every dimension you can bring to the game."
Guard Antonio Daniels (13.3 ppg) and forward Darius Songalia (10.8) found their increased roles comfortable, but the players asked to take up the shooting slack, especially from outside, just weren't up to the increased defensive pressure they faced. After solid seasons in supporting roles, Jarvis Hayes and DeShawn Stevenson shot a combined 24 for 92.