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Thursday, April 24, 2008
Scouts Inc. Update: Wizards vs. Cavs, Game 3

By Mike Moreau
Scouts Inc.

• Cavaliers-Wizards series breakdown | Series page

In their dominant Game 2 win, the Cleveland Cavaliers showed the experience of a team that battled its way to the NBA Finals last season. The lessons they learned in that journey are on full display in this series against the Washington Wizards, who came completely unraveled in the second half Monday, as epitomized by Brendan Haywood's flagrant pushing foul on LeBron James.

Cleveland slowly suffocated the Wizards with its size and physical defensive play, bringing the hard fouls and physical toughness Washington had promised but could not deliver. With the Cavaliers' shooters hitting timely 3s and James taking over when necessary, the Wizards were lucky to lose by only 30.

Game 2 began with the Wizards going back to the passing, screening and cutting motion of their Princeton offense, which they had abandoned in the disastrous closing minutes of Game 1. They got open shots and drives in the paint and stayed in a nice offensive rhythm for much of the first half. However, they blew some easy shots around the basket and made poor shot selections toward the end of the first half.

The Wizards also had a number of spacing and timing problems, with offensive players allowing help defenders to jam driving lanes. Ben Wallace, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Anderson Varejao constantly were around the foul line area, blocking traffic and clogging the lane.

Look for the Wizards to make some adjustments in their timing and positioning to try to clear the foul line area for more drives and cuts. They will either send the weak-side guard through to the opposite side or slide the wing man down to the corner.

Another problem the Wizards faced in Game 2 was that Antonio Daniels, DeShawn Stevenson and Caron Butler did a poor job in the high pick-and-roll. The ball handler makes this play go, and his job is to come off that screen hard and force the defense to hedge out hard to prevent him from turning the corner. The Wizards' ball handlers consistently conceded the corner to bigger, slower Cavs defenders -- sometimes stopping in their tracks. Only Roger Mason came off hard, and only once -- drawing a first-half foul on James.

By coming off the screen soft, they eliminated their option to shoot the gap -- to split between the two defenders and go to the basket. It was the equivalent of a football handoff at the line for no gain. Look for the Wizards' guards to come off harder and their screeners to change their angles and come from beside or below the defender to force him to chase the ball handler over the top.

The Wizards also failed to push the ball in transition, and this is something they must do in Game 3. They cannot win a half-court, grind-it-out affair. They must consider running at every opportunity and pulling it back out when a good shot is not available.

The Cavaliers were outstanding in their half-court offense in Game 2, running a high-low set for Ilgauskas with Wallace flashing into the high post. As Wallace is not much of an offensive threat, the Wizards double- teamed off him, allowing him to slide to open areas while Washington rotated and allowing James to find him for some easy baskets.

James also was able to attack the basket in transition, and there is not a player or team in the NBA that can keep him from getting to the basket if he can run in a straight line at full-steam ahead. The Wizards consistently picked him up inside the 3-point line, which was much too late, and all they could do was foul or get dunked on.

They must get to James as soon as possible in the half court and make him change directions. The Wizards did a better job of defending him in the half-court sets by running a second defender at him to force him to give up the ball.

However, as solid as the Wizards were defensively, they were late in their rotations back to shooters Wally Szczerbiak and Daniel Gibson. Devin Brown and Delonte West also hit 3s, which caused the Wizards to leave their double-teams on Ilgauskas and James and tag those shooters. Defense against the Cavs is an almost impossible task when those shots are falling.

Washington must be concerned about Butler's lack of effectiveness and his seeming lack of desire to be aggressive on the offensive end. Plus, Gilbert Arenas clearly is not healthy. He has no explosion or lift, and the Wizards have to rethink how -- or if -- they will use him in Game 3. This is no time for Washington to have a player trying to get his game right.

As dominant as Cleveland looked in Game 2, all it really did was hold serve. Nothing really changes in a series until somebody wins a road game.

And as bad as Washington looked in Game 2, keep in mind that this is a team that beat Boston in back-to-back games in January and beat New Orleans twice this season. The Wizards might have lost to Cleveland twice during the regular season, but they beat the Cavs in their third meeting.

James and the supreme confidence he has instilled in his teammates might be too much for the Wizards to overcome, but look for the Wizards to turn things around and make this a series.

PREDICTION: Wizards win Game 3

Mike Moreau is the director of basketball for the Pro Training Center and The Basketball Academy at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla. He also serves as an NBA analyst for Hoopsworld.