The final night of the Wizards' season was as unrewarding as the journey through the final month, ending predictably enough with Cleveland winning in a sweep but with enough subplot twists to keep anybody from yawning.
There was the inescapable irony of former Wizard Larry Hughes, now healthy, putting the last shovels of dirt on his old teammates. It was Hughes, not LeBron James, in the role of Mariano Rivera, firing three jump shots and making four free throws for 10 killer points in the final 4 1/2 minutes of Cleveland's series-clinching victory at Verizon Center. As if the Wizards needed to have the wounds filled with any more dirt. "When we were in a little rut," Cavaliers Coach Mike Brown said of the lead changing hands, "Larry Hughes was unbelievable."
By the time Hughes went over to hug his old coach, Eddie Jordan, his former teammate Brendan Haywood had left the floor. In fact, Haywood had bolted seconds before the game ended after another night not playing because the coach didn't want him to play. By the time the locker room was opened to the media, Haywood's name plate was gone, and so was he. Surely, it'll be the last time he'll appear in a Wizards uniform. If he's allowed back it'll be the worst executive decision imaginable. It doesn't matter whose fault it is or who's to blame for the fights with Etan Thomas; I'm not even one of those guys who thinks Haywood is useless. But after five years it ain't working here.
Antawn Jamison, asked about Haywood's quick departure after Game 4, said, "It's something we'll handle in-house. . . . I can understand his frustration from not getting to play. . . . It definitely won't be a distraction next year."
Probably, Haywood taking up permanent residence in the team doghouse wasn't much of a distraction the last month. The Wizards had bigger problems, from the injuries to Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler that doomed their season and forces a 2007 grade of "Incomplete" to the indignity of having Hughes finish off another terribly disappointing Wizards season.
"There were high expectations," Jamison said, "and we came up short on a lot of them."
Hardly ever does winning a total of one playoff game in a seven-game series matter. But it would have for the Wizards. It would have been one more than Miami got before being shown the door, one more than Orlando, the same number as Kobe and the Lakers. One victory would have been a nice reward for playing so hard despite spotting the Cavaliers a two-man advantage for the entire series. And it looked possible for a moment -- until Hughes hit one pull up jumper to give his team the lead for good, 81-80, then another for 83-80, then another for 87-84, then a pair of foul shots for 89-86.
"As my friend, I feel for Gilbert and those guys in that room," Hughes said afterward. "I love those guys in there. I called Gilbert the day after the surgery. It's tough. I know because I've been there. But in terms of basketball, I couldn't feel sorry for them. I love playing here, in D.C., and I love playing against those guys."
Asked why he never appeared to consider giving the ball to Mr. LeBron on those possessions, Hughes smiled and said: "I've got a switch, too. I can turn it on."
And with a flick, he turned the season off on his old team, some of whose members ragged on him at the end of the game and said he had big nerve coming back here healthy and putting them out. The Cavaliers will play into the second round and perhaps further, counting on Hughes as the point guard now, a very nice strategic move from Brown, who has been ripped pretty good at various points this season, probably too much. The Cavaliers don't look to be as formidable as the Pistons or Bulls but now that Hughes is running the team, LeBron doesn't have to do everything.
The Wizards, with Arenas and Butler injured, asked Jamison to do virtually everything and he tried. But -- and this bears repeating once more -- no team in the NBA playoffs could lose its two best players and advance in the playoffs. The top-seeded Dallas Mavericks have all their players and appear unable to beat Golden State. Take LeBron off the Cavaliers and they're the Atlanta Hawks. So, the Wizards weren't going to beat Cleveland in this series, and no they weren't going to push it six or seven games. The Cavaliers were in the Eastern Conference finals last year. They're a team with ambition, a superstar and most of all good health. The Wizards need to get well physically, then get better between now and November.
Inevitably, the subject of keeping the team together came up. With Arenas and Butler healthy, the Wizards are as good as Cleveland. If they played as hard with Arenas and Butler as they played in this series without them.
Arenas said before the game he wants to see management keep the team together, as much as is possible. (We presume, after two years of drama, nobody much wants Haywood back.) "I feel the same way," Jamison said, agreeing with Arenas. "We've seen what Darius Songaila can do when healthy. One month into the season we were playing pretty good basketball and leading this conference. After the game we talked about some things. Guys were ready to get started. I think we have seen a little bit of what we could become in the near future. I really think we've got to keep the core guys together."
Somewhere, somehow, Ernie Grunfeld has to come up with a bruiser, somebody who won't let Zydrunas Ilgauskas grab 19 rebounds in a playoff game in their house. Of course, finding that big bruiser is incredibly difficult to do when you don't have a lottery pick, tons of salary cap room, or excess players to dangle as trade bait. Still, that's the mission, even though 25 of the 30 teams in the league are searching for the same piece. Andray Blatche has to take a step forward and be a major contributor. And maybe the Wizards have something in the Ukranian 7-footer they drafted last year.
Mostly, though, the Wizards have to scrap and scramble with as much desperation and sense of urgency with Butler and Arenas as they did in this series without them. We saw during the series with Cleveland how consistently hard they can play, and any less effort would be an insult, and reason to run some folks out of town. The Bulls play that hard every night.
The Warriors play that hard fairly consistently. The Wizards are in that stage of development, even if the results from the last four games suggest otherwise.
While Larry Hughes was putting the final shovels of dirt on his old teammates, the Wizards were discovering what virtues - and holes - they possess.