I'm minutes away from heading off to Israel for the week, so I suppose I should give some sort of reason why I'm so confident in a Wizards first-round victory. Frankly, if we don't win this series, I'll be extremely disappointed. The only way Cleveland wins this series is if we lose concentration of their rebounders, fail to close out on their few three-point shooters, and let LeBron go off. The first won't happen with this Wizards team, and the second is contingent on the Cavs actually making their threes, which hasn't happened enough this year. The third is a harsh reality, but LeBron can't beat us himself; he'll need help.
Cleveland's two strengths are LeBron and rebounding, but since the trade, they're just 14-13 (the Wizards are 18-9 over that stretch). Their defense was a third strength last year, but it has fallen off considerably this season. Shooting, which was supposed to be a strength post-trade, hasn't been, and things won't be any better with Damon Jones on the pine. LeBron's also been ailing with a bad back, and Sasha Pavlovic isn't going to play in the series. As we're getting healthy, they remain in flux.
Offensively, they're a little bit better, but that's mostly because teams haven't played as much defense this year. They were 19th in the league last year, and despite scoring nearly a point more per 100 possessions, they're 19th again this year. Most of that improvement can be traced to LeBron, who has had a significantly better regular season this time around.
But look at those defensive numbers. Their defensive efficiency is five points wrose than last year, when they were one of the best defensive teams in the league. Their biggest strength last year was preventing second shot attempts, and that hasn't changed.
So what has? Two things. First, the loss of Larry Hughes has improved the offense, but has really hurt the defense. Cleveland is turning teams over far less frequently this year, and most of that is because Hughes isn't there to play the passing lanes. The trade for Ben Wallace created a redundancy, because Cleveland already rebounded really well, at the cost of perimeter defense. That's really good news for us, because we are such a perimeter-oriented team. Hughes bothered Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler when he played for the Cavs. Now that he's not there, who guards our Big 3? Devin Brown needs to be huge defensively for Cleveland's perimeter defense to have a chance.
Secondly, their effective field goal percentage allowed has dropped considerably. More teams are htting their jumpers against the Cavs than ever before, and I think that once again can be tied into losing Hughes. With Hughes, the Cavs trotted out an extremely long permieter core of Hughes, Pavlovic, and James. Their length bothered jump shooters, and since Cleveland rebounded so well, it played right into their hands. Problem is that without Hughes and Pavlovic, Mike Brown is going to have to give lots of minutes to the shorter Delonte West and Daniel Gibson, as well as the slower Szczerbiak. That plays right into DeShawn Stevenson's hands, because Stevenson is going to have more open looks from three-point range. He's hitting them extremely well right now, so Cleveland should be worried.
There's one more reason I'm confident. Besides LeBron and Big Z, nobody has played particularly well for Cleveland all year. Gibson has been hurt, Anderson Varejao has his contract problems, and West and Sczcerbiak have struggled since coming over from Seattle. Joe Smith has been decent, but he will have to be spectacular in this series, and he hasn't been nearly as good since he was traded from Chicago. In short, when LeBron is struggling, who does Cleveland have to pick up the slack?
Contrast that with us. With the injuries we've suffered all year, our bench guys have played key minutes. All of them have improved significantly since the beginning of the year. Darius Songaila has gone from hated to beloved because of his improved play. Roger Mason has come out of nowhere to be a bench spark that could win us a game if he shoots well from outside. Andray Blatche has slowly provided more consistent minutes for us as well, and if Nick Young is used, he's had the experience to play well in key spots. And don't forget about Gilbert, who is coming off his best game of the season.
In short, Cleveland may have the best player, but we have the far deeper team. In a series where both offenses can create mismatches all over the court, that will be the difference.
Wizards in 6. Book it.