This is definitely a very different Cavs-Wiz series from the previous ones. New players on the Cavaliers and healthy ones on the Wizards change the complexion of this growing rivalry significantly.
LeBron James' sore back might indeed be the biggest X factor in this series, as he likely will have to play one or two superlative games to help the Cavs get to four wins. And Gilbert Arenas is the second big mystery: What kind of rhythm can he find after spending much of the season on the sideline?
Neither team loves to push the pace, though the Cavs showed in the playoffs last year that using LeBron on the break or in early offense is a powerful weapon. And now the Wiz have Arenas to change the tempo immediately when he is inserted into the game.
The Wizards are playing good defense, thanks to a mini-breakout season by center Brendan Haywood. They'll mix up their looks when LeBron gets into the paint, sometimes rushing the double-team, other times delaying it. Their main mission will be to dictate which Cavalier gets the open jumper, and they'll try to funnel that to a Cleveland big man.
The Cavs, one of the top defenses in basketball a season ago, are not close to that level anymore with Delonte West and Joe Smith replacing Larry Hughes and Drew Gooden. The recipe they used so successfully last postseason -- rebound and defend -- will not be an option this time around, though they are still a superior rebounding team.
Daniels: A very capable point guard who gets things rolling with penetration and passing, Daniels will drive and split defenders to set up DeShawn Stevenson and Roger Mason for 3s. He's not a threat to shoot the 3 himself, however -- he has made only nine since Christmas. Cleveland must defend him without bringing help that frees the shooters.
West: Starting his first playoff series, West is playing his best basketball of the season right now, shooting well from the field. He also has done a nice job of getting the Cavs into their offense, patiently reading ball screens and rarely turning the ball over. But he's nowhere near the defensive presence Larry Hughes was, and that could hurt Cleveland in this series. Defense normally begins at the point, and West, though technically sound, lacks too much in the physical department.
Stevenson: Washington's leading 3-point shooter, Stevenson has torched Cleveland from behind the arc in their past two meetings (4-for-6 and 4-for-8). He's always moving in the Wizards' passing game and will tee it up from anywhere along the arc, so the Cavs must get to him even though he has been somewhat streaky in April.
Brown: He has been a capable scorer for the Cavs and comes into the playoffs as a hot shooter (though he's better as a slasher). He was solid against the Wizards this season and has played well alongside West lately. He's a bit small defensively, but he's strong, so he will match up occasionally with Caron Butler or even Antawn Jamison, an advantage the Wizards will look to exploit.
Butler: The Wizards' best player this season, Butler has carried the team but has been sidelined by a knee bruise he suffered against Detroit on April 11. He can post up, attack the basket and shoot the perimeter jumper. The Cavs like to defend him with Sasha Pavlovic, who forces Butler into tough shots and allows LeBron a lesser defensive assignment.
James: He's the best player in the world. Still, James is not a robot, and his slight April slide (26.6 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 31 percent from 3) because of his lower back problems screams trouble for the Cavs. James never caught fire from the perimeter this season versus the Wiz. When healthy, he gets any shot he wants. But back pain might force him into settling for too many deep jumpers, which would be a killer for the Cavs.
Jamison: He continues to be a scoring machine, but not against Cleveland this season -- he shot only 39 percent and averaged 15 points (well below his season average) in their four meetings. He has struggled against a variety of bigger defenders. Look for him to go back to the reckless abandon of last year's series, when he averaged 32 ppg using his quickness and creativity to beat the bigger Cleveland defenders off the dribble and to the offensive glass.
Wallace: Despite being a poor offensive player, Wallace likes to be in the mix offensively early on. Have the Cavs figured that out? He's not close to being the defensive player he once was, and I'm not sure he even has the presence Drew Gooden did last year for Cleveland. But when properly motivated, he can be a nice post passer and a difficult guy to score on inside. However, Jamison and even Darius Songaila can hurt Wallace from the perimeter as shooters or drivers.
Haywood: He's having a great month of April, scoring and rebounding above his average in a season that saw him emerge as a legitimate big man presence. He also has been solid in four games versus Cleveland -- averaging 16.5 points in two wins and 12 points in two losses to the Cavaliers -- but he hasn't rebounded well against the Cavs' big front line. He's much better in motion, making Z chase him around, than trying to muscle in the post.
Ilgauskas: Likely the Cavs' second-best player, and though he had a solid 2007-08 season, he did not shoot well out of the pick and pops he likes to run with LeBron. That action is key for the Cleveland offense to function because otherwise blitzes or hard hedges involving James will be defended more easily. Ilgauskas was a beast on the offensive glass last postseason and could give an average Wizards rebounding team a lot of trouble. The improved Haywood will present some trouble for him inside, as will the fast pace and quick passing of the Washington offense.
Gilbert Arenas: Agent Zero is the ultimate X factor in this series for Washington. His ability, or willingness, to blend with his teammates might determine the Wizards' fate. Arenas shot well from 3 in April but is still far from postseason form. The great ones, though, have a knack of finding their rhythm faster than the average player.
Darius Songaila: Had 15 and 19 in past two games against the Cavs. His versatility could be a matchup problem, as he can run and get easy baskets in transition, shoot the jumper or post. Some concern here for Cleveland.
Andray Blatche: Athleticism helps him attack the rim and go to the offensive glass, but his propensity to foul will make him a target on defense.
Roger Mason: Having his best season as a pro, playing 21 minutes in a consistent bench role. Hit seven 3s versus Indiana on Monday night and has flourished in Washington's passing and cutting attack. However, his minutes have dropped down the stretch as the Wizards got healthy.
Nick Young: Had 14 points in 19 minutes and 10 points in 18 minutes in two wins over the Cavs, and does provide athleticism off the bench, but he might be the odd man out with Arenas and the veterans logging more minutes.
Daniel Gibson: Last year's hero in the Pistons series was having a solid regular season until he suffered a midseason ankle injury. He's still predominantly just a 3-point threat, but he's a good one, hitting 118 of 268 this season (44 percent). Last year's success in May should give him some genuine confidence this postseason.
Anderson Varejao: A disappointing season, coming off the salary holdout. Still a rebounding force, but he is now even more of a liability offensively than he was last season. But energy off the bench is a big key come playoff time, so he could play an important role.
Wally Szczerbiak: Playing less than 20 minutes a game down the stretch, he hasn't materialized into the shot-maker LeBron hoped to have next to him.
Joe Smith: Quietly enjoyed one of his best seasons as a pro, for both the Bulls and the Cavs. He'll be highly motivated to enjoy this playoff experience. A good option for the Cavs offensively, inside or out, but playing him does hurt their typical rebounding dominance.
Sasha Pavlovic: Will likely miss series with sprained left ankle.
David Thorpe: The Wizards have all three of their superstars and ample motivation to play their best basketball of the season. The Cavaliers are still struggling to find their identity as a team, but have the world's best player on their side. I think Haywood will have an impact inside, and any one of the three Wiz stars will find a way to get it done in four of the games.
Prediction: Washington 4, Cleveland 3
Mike Moreau: Don't try to tell Washington it is the underdog in this series. This is a tough, gritty team even when undermanned and a very capable one with everyone healthy. Although the Cavs are still trying to find themselves, the Wizards know exactly who they are and think they are the better team.
Prediction: Washington 4, Cleveland 2
David Thorpe is an NBA analyst for ESPN.com and the executive director of the Pro Training Center at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla., where he oversees the player development program for NBA and college players. To e-mail him, click here.
Mike Moreau is the Director of Basketball for the Pro Training Center and The Basketball Academy at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, FL. He also serves an NBA Analyst for Hoopsworld.
Synergy Sports Technology systems were used in the preparation of this report.