CLEVELAND — With their season hanging in the balance and yet another early playoff exit awaiting them at the hands of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Washington Wizards turned to the man called “Tough Juice.”
All-star forward Caron Butler capped a spectacular effort by driving and banking in a tough running shot over James and Ben Wallace to give the Wizards a one-point lead with 3.9 second remaining.
The Cavaliers called a timeout and, to the surprise of no one, set up a play for James, who drove around DeShawn Stevenson and missed a driving layup as time expired, shocking a sold-out crowd at Quicken Loans Arena into silence and sending the Wizards back to Washington with an 88-87 victory.
The Cavaliers lead the best-of-seven series 3-2. Game 6 is Friday night at Verizon Center.
Butler finished with 32 points on 11-of-22 shooting with nine rebounds and five assists and took turns with Stevenson and Antonio Daniels defending James throughout the game. He dedicated the victory to ailing owner Abe Pollin, who sent the team off on Tuesday with an inspirational message: “Win one for me.”
Things didn’t look good when the Wizards trailed by five with 1 minute 47 seconds remaining, but Cleveland went scoreless on its final four possessions and the Wizards went ahead on a layup by Butler, two free throws by Daniels and, finally, Butler’s game winner.
“My back was against the wall, our back was against the wall, and the man who made it all possible and brought this team together wanted us to go out and get one for him and that’s what we did,” Butler said. “That meant a lot. We wanted to come out hard, come out aggressive and play with everything we had.”
Pollin, 84, doesn’t get around as easily as he used to, but Butler had an idea that the franchise patriarch was feeling pretty good after James missed the game’s final shot.
“Oh man, I bet he was up jumping around getting really happy,” Butler said. “And I know he’s going to be in the house Friday night when we come home and try to get another one. He’s a fighter and so is this team. We are a reflection of him.”
At the end of Sunday’s 100-97 home loss in Game 4, Coach Eddie Jordan called a play for Gilbert Arenas and Arenas missed a contested three-pointer at the buzzer. After the game, Jordan said that he had considered using Arenas as a decoy and instead running a play involving Butler and Antawn Jamison, the team’s resident all-stars.
On Wednesday night, with Arenas sitting on the bench in street clothes with a sore left knee that will keep him out for the remainder of the playoffs, Jordan had no choice.
Butler inbounded to Jamison, who held the ball for a second before passing it back to Butler.
After reading the defense, Butler put his head down and drove hard to his left past James before releasing a right-handed shot that cleared James and Ben Wallace before going in.
“I’m an honest man and I kept my promise,” Jordan said. “It went to Antawn first and it’s his decision whether to keep it. He sort of shuffled it to Caron after Caron made the cut, and then Caron made a terrific drive that I thought he got bumped on, but that’s OK, we can live with that. So that was the kind of play I thought about calling the other day and it worked out because Caron made the play.”
But the game wasn’t over following Butler’s go-ahead score.
James has beaten the Wizards five times in the playoffs by either making a go-ahead score or by making a pass that led to a go-ahead score, so the entire Wizards bench was up and watching intently as he made his drive at the end Wednesday night.
James, who finished with 34 points, 10 rebounds and 7 assists, appeared to get off a decent shot but the ball rattled in and popped out. Before James received the inbounds pass, Butler walked up to him and delivered a message.
“I just told him to make the season interesting,” Butler said. “Let’s take it back to D.C. And he started laughing. You know, I had to get him back for what he did to Gilbert a couple of years ago at the foul line.”