Debut ball: LeBron's 1st playoff game one to remember

CLEVELAND -- The black T-shirts being mass distributed here by Nike before the Cleveland Cavaliers's 97-86 Game 1 win over the Washington Wizards had one perfect word written across the chest: "Witness."

LeBron James' first career playoff game, which he finished with a triple-double of 32 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists, sure was a sight to behold -- not only on the court, but all throughout the Q Arena, a building bubbling with excitement and energy unlike anything I've seen in years.

Some 20 minutes before tipoff, the stands were 80 percent full. And by the time James earned the final piece of his triple-double by pulling down a rebound with about 40 seconds left, the place was in a full-throated frenzy that seemed as though it had been bottled up for more than a decade.

Probably because it had.

The folks in Cleveland haven't had a team to cheer into the second round since Brad Daugherty and Mark Price were the names that got everybody's giddy up -- that was 13 years ago. Since then, there had been just four playoff appearances before this season, and just two wins. The last seven years have been one long drought -- no postseason appearances, lots of lottery picks.

The walls outside the Cavs' locker room are adorned with pictures and platitudes in tribute to players including Larry Nance and Bingo Smith, icons back in the 1970s and '80s, but mysteries to probably half the fans who packed the house and unpacked their lungs to turn James' first postseason appearance into a LeBron Love-a-thon.

"It's getting there," James said. "The atmosphere was unbelievable. I was very excited before the game to see the towels waving."

Thousands of those white towels were indeed twirling as the Cavs came out for their introductions, but the color of the day in the stands was black from all those "Witness" T-shirts. They are part of a marketing effort by James' biggest sponsor, the same company that put a 110-foot-tall, 220-foot-wide billboard of James on the side of a building directly across the street from "The Q."

The ad is underscored with the statement "We Are All Witnesses," which comes off a little too corny or contrived before you sit there and realize it's so darn true.

Not since Magic Johnson played in his first playoff game in 1980 had a player thrown up a triple-double in his postseason debut.

"It's a great class to be in," James said.

The details of what the Wizards witnessed Saturday in getting trounced looked something like this: Every time they sent a second defender at James, he quickly found an open teammate and hit him squarely in the hands, chest-high.

Didn't matter if he had a half-second or a quarter-second to scan the court and make up his mind. He saw the whole court, made the right pass and let his boys knock down the open ones.

Donyell Marshall scored 19 and made three 3-pointers, Eric Snow matched his season-high of 14 and Flip Murray added 10 to help make up for the 1-for-9 shooting of the player who replaced him as a starter, Larry Hughes.

The Wizards tried using 6-11 Jared Jefferies, bulldog Caron Butler, combo guard Antonio Daniels and even journeyman Billy Thomas on him, and the only one who had even a sniff of success was Butler.

Except, of course, for James' first shot of the game. An airball.

"I was nervous just sitting there on the bench, but when he shot that airball it relaxed me a little," Marshall said.

"I also had an airball on my first shot in the All-Star Game," James reminded everyone.

The Wizards headed back to the drawing board in Washington after the game to work on whatever schemes they may have that worked against LeBron in the regular season. They overplayed him to the right in this game, trying to force him to go to his left, but Arenas felt they didn't overplay him enough and let him go right twice as many times as he should have.

Really, it was a breakdown on a number of levels, as Arenas pointed out.

"Basketball players, if they're missing shots they're not playing defense, and that showed tonight. We were getting fouls and complaining, they were getting easy breaks. You miss a shot and come back and you're not executing because you're complaining to the ref. That all happened, and it showed tonight," Arenas said.

On offense, Arenas, the NBA's fourth-leading scorer, had an anonymous first half, spent four more minutes than he expected on the bench in the third quarter and then scored 17 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter.

By then, however, the folks in the "Witness" shirts were witnessing only the final stages of a blowout.