Wizards 104, Cavaliers 92

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WASHINGTON – Gilbert Arenas scored 35 points, leading Washington past LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers 104-92 to end a five-game losing streak and clinch consecutive postseason berths for the first time since 1988.

Antawn Jamison added 16 points and 11 rebounds for Washington, and Caron Butler added 21 points after being out for five games with a right thumb injury. Butler sparked Washington with constant energy at both ends, and his 3-pointer at the buzzer ending the third quarter put the hosts ahead 88-62.

Game over, right? Well, not quite. The Cavaliers went on a 15-0 run to start the final period with James and their four other starters on the sideline. That made it an 11-point margin and drew some boos from the home crowd of 18,405.

The Wizards’ first basket of the fourth quarter didn’t come until there were just under 7 minutes left, and it came from Butler inside. Cleveland was within nine points with about 3 minutes to go, but Jamison dunked on a fast break, Arenas tacked on a jumper to make it 100-87, and the Cavaliers never got closer than 10 again.

James returned to Cleveland’s lineup after missing a game for the first time this season because of a sprained left ankle. He scored 17 points in 291/2 minutes, but there was no reason for him to push it because the game didn’t mean much to the Cavaliers: At 48-32, they’re assured of being the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference.

The Wizards (40-40) are currently No. 5 in the East, where all eight playoff teams are set, although the seeding for Nos. 5-8 isn’t. Washington’s win eliminated the Philadelphia 76ers.

And if the Wizards and Cavaliers do wind up meeting when the playoffs start next weekend, both clubs will know this: Washington won their season series 3-1.

Given their recent struggles – the five consecutive losses matched their worst stretch all season – the Wizards might have been more relieved than really excited to officially make the playoffs. Last season’s trip was the club’s first since 1997; now they’re going in back-to-back years for the first time since making the postseason five times in a row from 1983-84 to 1987-88.

Two-time All-Star Arenas is a big reason, of course, and he showed why Sunday, topping 30 points for the sixth time in the past seven games. He took over the game for stretches, including when he scored 11 in the third quarter. Butler added nine in the period, and Antonio Daniels – back to his customary reserve role with Butler’s return – scored 10 on 3-for-3 field-goal shooting.

James didn’t take it easy when he was on the court, and showed no signs of an ankle problem. He drove strong through traffic for a two-handed dunk in the first quarter, then looked at an official and implored, “And one!” – but no foul was called.

Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Flip Murray scored 14 points for Cleveland. Larry Hughes, playing his first game at Washington since leaving the Wizards as a free agent, had all 11 of his points in a run bridging the end of the second quarter and start of the third during which he was the only Cavaliers player to score.

Led by a combined 30 points from Arenas and Jamison, Washington was up 53-41 at halftime.

Notes: Wizards C Etan Thomas missed the game with a lower back strain. … Hughes started and heard scattered jeers pretty much every time he touched the ball. … James on his approach to his first NBA postseason: “I’ve been successful at every level. I’ve heard the playoffs are a different atmosphere, and I feel like I’m going to approach it differently, but my game won’t change.” … George Mason coach Jim Larranaga attended the game and drew a loud ovation when he was shown on the video screen above the court where his 11th-seeded Patriots stunned No. 1 seed Connecticut to reach the Final Four.

AP-ES-04-16-06 2033EDT

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