INDEPENDENCE, Ohio - LeBron James whistled an unrecognizable tune - no, it wasn't one of Jay-Z's - as he practiced free throws. He seemed blissfully serene.
Staying that way will be tough. He's got to go at least one more round with the Washington Wizards.
A target of taunts and physical abuse almost since the opening tip in Game 1, James and the Cavaliers can eliminate the Wizards from the playoffs for the third straight season tonight.
James, who has enhanced his professional resume by dispatching the Wizards on early summer vacations, knows it won't be easy to end this first-round series. The Wizards are in a bind, even desperate.
"They ain't got no choice but to be desperate," said James, who is averaging 29.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 6.5 assists in four games. "They're down 3-1. We need to put them away."
Yesterday, James wouldn't comment on the latest insult from Wizards center Brendan Haywood, who a day earlier mocked Cleveland's all-star by saying, "Awww, they're trying to hurt me" in a whiny voice in response to James' assertion following Game 4 that the Wizards are out to get him.
But James stood by his remark: He doesn't think the Wizards can come back to win the series.
"I just have confidence in our team," he said. "It has nothing to do with the Wizards. They're a very good team, but they've got to beat us three straight games and I can't see that happening."
The Wizards haven't been eliminated on the road since 1988, when they were knocked out in the first round at Detroit. To avoid a similar fate in Game 5, they'll need to do a better job on James, hit the boards and make their shots.
It might help, too, if they quit the trash talking, which seems to have boomeranged. Most of what the Wizards have said, has come back to bite them. Throw in some rap stars, a few flagrant fouls and it's become quite a series.
"I've never seen a series like this where you have music involved, you have trash talk involved, everything," said Cavaliers forward Joe Smith, a 13-year veteran. "I guess that's the way the sport has grown and when you have a rivalry like this, there's no telling what you might find."
A quick rewind on the Washington vs. Cleveland feud:
Wizards forward DeShawn Stevenson called James "overrated." James dismissed it, saying a response would be like hip-hop mogul Jay-Z dignifying something said by rapper Soulja Boy. Stevenson fired back by giving Soulja Boy courtside seats for Game 3, a 36-point Washington win. Jay-Z, a close friend of James, countered with a song dissing Stevenson that was played at a D.C. club last weekend.
On the floor, Haywood shoved James and got ejected in Game 2. Stevenson swiped at James' head and got a technical in Game 4. Haywood makes fun of James, Stevenson gets fined $25,000 for making a throat-slashing gesture in Game 4.
This is basketball?
And despite being down, the Wizards haven't stopped yapping.
"You'd think after a while it would kind of calm down a little bit," said Smith, who has never been beyond the first round in his career. "It's real surprising that they're still vocal. They're still kind of trying, I guess, to get in our heads a little bit. But it hasn't worked thus far in this series and I don't think it will work at all."
Stevenson, Haywood and Gilbert Arenas did not speak to the media before the Wizards left for Cleveland. Antawn Jamison, though, had an interesting take on his teammates' oratorical outbursts.
"All this talking throughout the media, about this and that, is really beneath me," he said. "And I'm kind of disappointed that my team has kind of bought into it."
BOBCATS/BROWN: Larry Brown wanted to resurrect his vagabond, Hall of Fame coaching career. Michael Jordan needed a veteran teacher and a big hire to rescue his sinking reputation as an NBA executive.
The two former North Carolina players teamed up yesterday when Jordan introduced Brown as coach of the Charlotte Bobcats - his ninth NBA coaching job. Brown agreed to a four-year contract, returning to the state where his nomadic coaching journey began.
The 67-year-old Brown replaces Sam Vincent, whom Jordan hired last year despite no NBA head coaching experience. Vincent, who was fired Saturday, struggled to find consistent rotations and clashed with players in a 32-50 season.
Brown's nine NBA teams are three more than any other coach - Kevin Loughery and Lenny Wilkens each coached six - and he's one of only five NBA coaches with more than 1,000 wins.
HORNETS/SCOTT: Byron Scott has been voted NBA coach of the year after leading New Orleans to its first playoff appearance in four years. Scott coached the Hornets to a 56-26 record, a franchise high for wins.
Hornets 99, Mavericks 94
NEW ORLEANS - Chris Paul had 24 points, 15 assists and 11 rebounds, and the Hornets held on to win their first-round series in five games.
David West scored 25 for New Orleans and Jannero Pargo had 17. Tyson Chandler had 10 points and 14 rebounds.
Dirk Nowitzki led Dallas with 22 points and 13 rebounds, and Devean George added 11 points in the fourth quarter as Dallas nearly pulled off an improbable comeback.
Rockets 95, Jazz 69
HOUSTON - Tracy McGrady scored 29 points, Luis Scola added 18 points and 12 rebounds, and the Rockets staved off elimination.
Spurs 92, Suns 87
SAN ANTONIO - Tony Parker scored 31 points, Tim Duncan added 29 points and 17 rebounds, and the Spurs advanced to the second round with a victory over Phoenix.
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