CLEVELAND - Maybe the NBA should get Jerry Springer and Dr. Phil to referee the Cavaliers-Wizards series.
With all the long-distance name calling and trash talking going on, who better than those two TV arbiters of peace and harmony to officiate the first round of the playoffs?
Weeks of back-and-forth yapping, some of it very personal, between Cleveland star LeBron James and Washington guard DeShawn Stevenson - mixed in with some pointed blogging by Gilbert Arenas - has given this best-of-seven series a serious buzz.
But as Cavaliers forward Joe Smith warned, the war of words is over.
"Once you cross those lines," he said yesterday, "your mouth can't get you out of trouble."
There is history here, and maybe even hatred between the teams. This is the third straight year that the Cavs and Wizards have met in the postseason, and Act III, which begins with Game 1 today at raucous Quicken Loans Arena, promises to be their most dramatic matchup yet.
Heck, Soulja Boy might even show up.
OK, a quick rewind of the recent inflammatory past. After James missed a potential game-winning 3-pointer in the final seconds in a loss at Washington on March 13, Stevenson, who was in James' face the whole night, called the all-star forward "overrated."
Not long after, James discounted Stevenson's comments, saying that dignifying them would be like rap mogul Jay-Z worrying about something muttered by Soulja Boy, one of hip hop's one-hit wonders. Then, it was Arenas' turn to sound off.
Agent Zero, still working his way back after missing the majority of the season following knee surgery, ripped the Cavs in a blog entry.
"I think everybody wants Cleveland in that first round," Arenas wrote. "We want Cleveland for our own reasons; we don't think they can beat us in the playoffs three years straight."
James dismissed Arenas' remarks, knowing that they were coming from a close friend who has a flair for the dramatic. But James, who won this season's scoring title, isn't sure what to make of what Stevenson said or why he seemed so vindictive.
"I never said anything personal about him or anything about his family that would tick somebody off like that," James said. "I don't know what was said to him. I have never said anything personal about anybody. I don't know what people go through outside the game. If I said something about his basketball game? Then maybe. But about him personally? I don't go that far."
Stevenson may have been trying to motivate himself or his teammates, who have been eliminated by the Cavaliers the past two years. But he may have also energized James, who hasn't practiced in two weeks because of a tight back.
Either way, Stevenson has made himself a marked man.
"Hopefully I am," said Stevenson, who has invited Soulja Boy to attend games in Washington. "I should be. We've got to win the series. I feel that it's our time and somebody has to step up."
Stevenson will draw the defensive assignment on James, who averaged 27.8 points, 8.5 rebounds and 7.5 assists against Washington in last year's playoffs. He was asked what it will take to get him ready for this year's meeting.
"Just put on highlights of LeBron," he said.
Two years ago, the Cavaliers beat the Wizards in six games, but three of Cleveland's victories were by one point and the final two were decided in overtime. Game 6 ended with Arenas missing two free throws after James whispered into his ear at the line.
Last year, Cleveland swept Washington four straight on its way to the finals, but the Wizards were without Arenas and All-Star Caron Butler.
The Wizards are convinced round three will be their charm.
"We've got all our players, we feel comfortable, we're playing good with each other now," Butler said. "Our back is not against the wall, it's theirs."
And speaking of backs, James has been resting his as much as possible to get ready for his third postseason. He sat out Cleveland's regular-season finale against Detroit, a team he hopes to see again in the weeks ahead. He's not about to let some spasms end his season.
"Right now, it's [his back] not 100 percent. But we're in April. We've got two months left and we're trying to get all the way to June and try to win an NBA championship," he said. "I'm probably not going to have to sit out any games, so that's a good thing. It's not 100 percent, but I'll be fine."
The Cavaliers haven't been able to make that claim all season.
The reigning Eastern Conference champions have been in almost perpetual transition since November. They've battled injuries and chemistry issues for months. Coach Mike Brown has struggled to find the right rotation since acquiring Smith, Ben Wallace, Wally Szczerbiak and Delonte West in a Feb. 21 trade.
Cleveland has been only slightly better than a .500 team since the deal, making them seem vulnerable to a first-round ouster - something Arenas has already pointed out.
James was encouraged by a 91-90 win in Philadelphia on Monday, when the Cavs locked up the No. 4 seed and home-court advantage in the first round. Entering his third postseason, James has experience to draw from, and he knows better than to start throwing jabs at Washington.
He's confident. The Cavaliers may not be a sexy postseason pick, but their leader feels good about their chances.
"As long as I'm on the court, we'll be all right," James said. "I mean that."41.50436 -81.69046