WASHINGTON -- How many ways can the Washington Wizards allow themselves to be haunted and taunted by the Cleveland Cavaliers? The previous two seasons, the Cavaliers not only knocked the Wizards from the NBA playoffs in the first round, but they also did it on Washington's home court - a special brand of torture.
This year, the Wizards pledged there would be no such humiliation. Through five games, Washington committed hard fouls and talked tough - inciting their fans to do the latter - turning this into one of the spiciest playoff series in the nation's capital in years.
And then last night - with the Cavaliers poised to eliminate the Wizards in the first round at Verizon Center for the third straight year - Washington staggered and lost and was embarrassed, 105-88. Again.
Could it get any worse for the Wizards?
"It's hard to swallow because as a team you know you're better than what your performance has shown," said Antawn Jamison, who led the Wizards with 23 points. "What's the formula for it? I have no idea."
Wizards fans, not known as the NBA's loudest, had been stirred up in the series by guard DeShawn Stevenson calling Cleveland superstar LeBron James "overrated," and by center Brendan Haywood mocking James for complaining about hard fouls. James said replying to Stevenson's remark would be like hip-hop mogul Jay-Z responding to less-celebrated rapper Soulja Boy.
Many fans showed up last night with T-shirts bearing James' No. 23 with "Crybaby" on the front.
"Baby Cam," read the jumbo screen caption when James complained to officials about a first-half call. Fans booed each time James got the ball in the first half - just as Cavaliers fans had booed Stevenson at Quicken Loans Arena.
But James responded with a heady triple double - 27 points, 13 assists and 13 rebounds - marked by his willingness to swing the ball to open teammates.
"I'll let you guys [the media] decide if we got the last laugh," James said. "Cleveland is advancing. That's all that matters."
Washington forward Darius Songaila was suspended earlier in the day for what the NBA said was an extraneous shot at James in Game 5.
"The team came out [in the series] and said they were going to hit LeBron," Cavaliers coach Mike Brown said. "It was up to the NBA to make sure they cleaned that up. In terms of them suspending Darius, they never called me."
Brown said some "other things" happened in the series that could have resulted in suspensions but didn't. He didn't elaborate.
Washington had been desperate to prevent the Cavaliers from celebrating on its home floor - an occurrence that now seems as normal as presidential inaugurations. Abe Pollin, the Wizards' 84-year-old owner, met with the team before Game 5 and beseeched it to stave off elimination.
Last night, the Wizards had encouraged their fans to create "white-out conditions" by wearing white shirts and waving towels distributed by sponsors. Fans arrived to find a T-shirt laid over each of the arena's 20,000 seats.
The team didn't mean the towels to be white surrender flags. But the Wizards, after leading by as many six points, buckled. They went more than five minutes in the first half without a point and did not regain the lead.
Much of the damage was done not by James but by Wally Szczerbiak, who had scored in single digits in four of the five previous games. Szczerbiak, often alone at the arc when the Wizards double-teamed James, made six three-pointers and scored 26 points.
With his performance, Szczerbiak became as notable a Washington tormenter as Damon Jones, the little-used guard who hit a jumper in the final seconds of overtime in last year's Game 6 to eliminate the Wizards. Jones' shot came moments after James had memorably talked trash to Gilbert Arenas at the foul line. Arenas, whose injured knee kept him sidelined last night, had missed a pair to set up Jones' winning shot.
The Wizards, bidding to be the ninth team to rally from a 3-1 deficit to win a playoff series, can only hope to face Cleveland again next year.
While the outcome has been one-sided, Cavaliers-Wizards has acquired the history - with villains and heroes - that any good rivalry needs.
Could Stevenson be any more of a villain to the Cavaliers and their fans? He showed up in Cleveland wearing a Michael Vick jersey. He said his fashion choice wasn't intended to make a statement.