PLAYOFF SERIES: Eastern Conference first round; Game 1.
The fourth-seeded Cavaliers make their first postseason appearance since 1998 when they host the fifth-seeded Washington Wizards in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
“I don’t put timelines on anything,” James said following practice Thursday. “It’s unfortunate I didn’t make it the last two years, but I’m here now.”
Cleveland has steadily improved each season since choosing James as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2003 draft. The club more than doubled its win total from 17 in 2002-03 to 35 in 2003-04, James’ first season.
Last year it recorded 42 wins and this season the trend continued as the Cavaliers totaled 50 wins for just the fourth time in franchise history with a 100-99 win over the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday. Flip Murray scored 19 points and Anderson Varejao added a double-double off the bench to continue the team’s late-season momentum. The victory was Cleveland’s 14th in its last 17 games.
“It’s good going in on a high note, but if we would have lost I imagine our focus would be the same,” said Mike Brown, who became the first rookie coach to win 50 games since Rick Carlisle did it for Detroit in 2001-02. “We still have a tough time ahead of us. That’s a talented Wizards team.”
Brown sat most of his starters in preparation to face Washington, which has beaten Cleveland in three straight meetings. James has missed three of the last four games as a precaution because of a tender left ankle he rolled in a 96-73 loss to Detroit on April 12.
The 21-year-old phenom finished the regular season averaging 31.4 points, 7.0 rebounds and 6.6 assists, joining Oscar Robertson, Jerry West and Michael Jordan as the only players in league history to go 31-7-6 in a season. James has only averaged 24.3 points against Washington, however, and scored just 17 points in their last meeting, a 104-92 Wizards’ win on April 16.
Larry Hughes, who missed 45 games because of a fractured right middle finger before returning April 4, also sat out Wednesday’s game. He is averaging 13.0 points since his return and scored 33 points in two games against Washington this season.
The Cavaliers hope to move beyond the first round for the first time since 1993, and the friendly confines of Quicken Loans Arena can only help their cause. The team finished the season by winning their last 11 games at home.
“It is a new time and a whole different mindset,” power forward Drew Gooden said. “We have home court advantage and it’s a playoff atmosphere so we will pick our level of play up.”
The Wizards picked up their play following a five-game losing streak, winning their final three, including a 96-80 win over the Detroit Pistons on Wednesday. The victory over the NBA’s best team clinched the fifth seed for Washington and gave the club some added confidence.
“We’re going into the playoffs with an edge because we really had to be sharp the last 10 games,” said leading scorer Gilbert Arenas, who finished with 18 points in the victory. “It’s a whole new season, but hopefully that’ll help us.”
Caron Butler had 33 points and 12 rebounds Wednesday while Antawn Jamison had 21 points and nine rebounds for the Wizards, who earned their second straight playoff appearance, but just third in their last 17 seasons.
Washington defeated Chicago 4-2 in the first round last season before being swept by Miami in the conference semifinals. The Wizards have lost four of their last five games away from home and are just 15-26 on the road this season.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Wizards - 5th seed. Cavaliers - 4th seed.
REGULAR SEASON TEAM LEADERS: Wizards - Arenas, 29.3 ppg and 6.1 apg; Jamison, 9.3 rpg. Cavaliers - James, 31.4 ppg and 6.6 apg; Gooden, 8.4 rpg.
REGULAR SEASON SERIES: Wizards, 3-1. The Wizards have won three straight by an average of 10.7 points. Arenas has scored 30 or more twice against Cleveland while James is averaging 24.3 points in matchups with Washington, well below his season mark of 31.4.