Butler stars in LeBron's role

CLEVELAND -- He's an inch shorter and about 30 pounds lighter, and he likes to chew straws rather than fingernails during games, but Caron Butler sure looked like a perfect facsimile of LeBron James in the hot finish of Wednesday's playoff game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Washington Wizards.

The Wizards small forward, an All-Star at the position just like James, brought some balance to the mostly one-sided saga that is the Cavs vs. Wizards in carrying Washington to an 88-87 win. The Wizards now trail 3-2 in their best-of-seven series.

In yet another memorable April battle/grudge match between the two rivals, the game again came down to the final seconds. That's usually when James steps in with a masculine march to the basket or a striking display of finesse or even a whip pass out of a double-team to a waiting as-yet-unsung hero. And he had the chance to do it again, but the Wizards, and maybe a little karma, wouldn't allow it this time.

No, James' role in Game 5 of this momentum-building series was played by Butler, and played quite well. Right down to those last-second heroics, as Butler flipped the tables. It was James who was going to be driven on, James' defense that was good but not good enough, James who had to have his heart broken by a ball bouncing on the rim before seemingly being pulled through by a mixture of star power and will.

Butler sized James up at the top of the key and saw him take a step back. He thought about taking a jumper, and down one it would have made quite a highlight.

"I was going to take a jump shot, but I didn't want to settle," Butler said. "I didn't want to look back at the season and be like I settled for the jump shot and probably bail out [LeBron]."

Plus he felt strong -- the chipped bone in his wrist, his aching knee and sore hip all were feeling just fine. They had felt fine all night. He scored 11 points right off the bat when his jumper was working, even with hands in his face. He kept going, defeating defender after defender the Cavs tried on him while piling up points, assists and rebounds. Not unlike James when he's having a good night. James, too, was doing it at an even faster pace than Butler.

But Butler had the step on him in the end and turned the corner. James recovered near the rim and cut him off, but Butler already had the angle. All he thought about was hitting the box, giving it a chance.

The ball got over James and passed the swinging arm of Ben Wallace. Then off that box, and off the rim and off the rim again. Below, eyes focused and arms swung, twice swatting the net and shaking the rim as the ball fell through with 3.9 seconds left.

James got his chance, and Butler again took on the role No. 23 usually plays. As the teams were setting up for the final four seconds, Butler came over to whisper in LeBron's ear. In was half joke, half mind game -- just like James did two years ago when he spooked Gilbert Arenas at the foul line and he missed two free throws in the deciding Game 6.

"I was messing with LeBron a little bit," Butler said. "I said 'Let's make this series interesting. Let's take it back to D.C.'"

James did make it interesting. He smashed into Darius Songaila as he tried to make his own winning play, his layup not finding the same friendly response as Butler's. But there was no whistle and there shouldn't have been one. Just a different result and a new hero.

"We got a miss for the first time since who knows when," Wizards coach Eddie Jordan said. "It's been a [Sasha] Pavlovic make, it's a Delonte West make, it's a Daniel Gibson make, it's a Damon Jones make. Every game it seems like we lose. We finally get a miss."

And a star performance from Butler, who had a career playoff-high 32 points to go with nine rebounds and five assists. Plus one pretty impressive finish, one that featured very little of the famous Wizards talking and some quite memorable doing.

"That was our season right there," Butler said. "We've proven doubters wrong all season and this was just another opportunity."

Brian Windhorst covers the NBA for the Akron Beacon Journal.