What makes a rivalry?
Mike Lee was the beat man covering the Wizards during the 2004-2005 season but I was helping out late in the regular season and the playoffs. When the Miami Heat completed a sweep of the Wizards in the second round with a win at Verizon Center, I was amazed to walk into the home locker room after Game 4 and see players giving interviews with smiles or talking about that night's plans (except Antawn Jamison. I can say that. He wasn't happy). The general mood was ridiculously jovial.
Having just covered the NFL for five seasons as a beat man in Kansas City, this shocked me. That doesn't happen in an NFL locker room when a team has been crushed by an opponent. True, the NBA is different and the Wizards broke through that season by making the playoffs and taking a series off of Chicago but still, shouldn't losing hurt just a little, especially in a sweep?
That's what has me thinking about last night when DeShawn Stevenson spoke up and shared some thoughts never previously discussed publically by a Wizards player. He talked about meeting the trash talk coming his way from Damon Jones and LeBron Jones with words of his own. And after the game, Stevenson called James "overrated." My thought was: it's about time.
Cleveland has put this team out of the playoffs two straight years and offered a classic beatdown in C-town earllier this season and yet, in all of the games played between them, I can recall no real hard fouls (Brendan Haywood has delivered two love taps on James in three seasons) and no real animosity.
Of course, none of that should come from the Cleveland side because they've won. They can walk in, give the Wiz a pound and then go out and play because in their collective minds, they know they'll win. It's the basketball version of a pat on the head. "Thanks for coming," the Cavs say. "You're a nice little team but we'll win because we always do. Now, go enjoy your summer."
To me, that's not a true rivalry. Celtics-Lakers was a rivalry. Bulls-Pistons was a rivalry. Pistons-Celtics was a rivalry. Those teams hated one another and their fans felt the same way. Elbows were thrown. Ejections sometimes took place. Dudes called each other in the media. If a Celts fan and a Lakers fan wound up in the same bar, looks were exchanged and words followed.
Wizards-Cavaliers is a matchup.
And then last night, I saw Caron Butler trading elbows with Sasha Pavolovic and Stevenson not backing down for King James. Haywood even put a hard foul on the King, who reacted as if he'd been clocked in the dome by Rick Mahorn or something.
If I'm a Wizards fan, I think DeShawn did a good thing and I'm thrilled that Butler is back and feeling healthy. From Butler's overall play to Jamison's consistent double-doubles to Stevenson's swag to Antonio Daniels attacking the rim like a running back and Haywood's periodic hard foul, this is a tougher team than in recent seasons. And that's not mentioning Darius Songaila, Andray Blatche, Nick Young, Roger Mason Jr. and Dom McGuire who give the Wiz a much better bench than the one the team brought into that classic series two years ago.
If nothing else, it's becoming obvious that losing hurts this bunch and that's a very good thing.
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