- The Cavaliers and Wizards played a thriller that was as good as the regular season gets. While Cleveland narrowly pulled out a win, both teams passed a major test.
There are many things to say about Monday night in D.C., but most importantly, it was as good as the NBA regular season gets. There were John Wall MVP chants, Bradley Beal went for 41 points, and the Wizards matched Cleveland shot-for-shot until it looked like they'd won it at the end. Then after trading blows down the stretch, LeBron James banked in a three, falling out of bounds, to tie it in the final second. When James fouled out in overtime, Kyrie Irving reprised his Finals role of dreamkiller, scoring 11 points through overtime, burying the Wizards under a mountain of crossovers and pull-up jumpers.
Scott Brooks, the coach who lost in overtime, opened his press conference calling it an "instant classic." He is correct. That game is what happens when two teams are being tested, and somehow both teams pass.
Start with Cleveland. If there were any concerns about the Cavs after a shaky January and losses to teams like the Pelicans and Kings, last night was proof that every concern is relative. Against a good Wizards team on the road, Kevin Love had 39 points and 12 rebounds, LeBron put up 31 points, 17 assists, and 7 rebounds, and again, Kyrie went full-on Game 5 to close it. (See also: Kelly Oubre's crossover reaction).
It was a night to remind everyone that it probably doesn't matter who the Cavs backup point guard is. When they're paying attention, the Cavs have a gear that ordinary basketball teams can't touch. LeBron played most of the game picking apart the defense with his passing, for example, and he made it look easy. Then when things got tight at the end, LeBron shifted to peak supervillain, flexing on fast breaks, playing to the crowd, and burying four threes in the final five minutes. These are problems that can't be solved.
"The mistakes we made," Brooks said, "They were split-second mistakes, and [the Cavs] nail a three on you. We have to get a little better. I don't know how much better we can get from those mistakes. They have one of the best players ever to play. Some of his passing... Tonight was vintage LeBron James, 17 assists, and they were all beeline, direct, right in the shooting pocket. All they had to do was just shoot the ball. He makes the game easy, that's why he is who he is.
As Ty Lue explained, "They really push the basketball, which puts you at a disadvantage because of the shooting they have. With Bradley Beal, and now [Otto] Porter leading the league in three-point percentage. They put you in some tough situations."
The Wizards had won 17 straight games at home before the Cleveland game, and they played like it. And if the Cavs takeaway was fairly obvious long before Monday—everything in the East goes through LeBron—it's the Wizards wrinkle that made Monday fun. Or to put it a different way: The Cavs are safely back to looking like the Cavs, and the Wizards are still looking like... Not the Wizards?
It's been like this for almost two months, and it's only getting stranger. They probably need one more piece to make a real run in the playoffs, but Washington's clicking as well as anyone in the NBA right now. They're moving the ball, Scott Brooks is disguising his bench's weaknesses with clever rotations, and everyone in the starting lineup is having a career year. I don't think they can beat the Cavs, but they might represent the most entertaining challenge on the board.
"John [Wall] has been playing amazing basketball," Kevin Love said postgame. "Maybe the best of his career. He has that team playing at a very high level. Beal is healthy, you saw what he was capable of tonight. Guys on that team step up. They throw out a different crew of guys out there at different times throughout the game, they play physical, they play strong. They're a good team."
It all kept going Monday. Everything that's been clicking with this team for the past two months kept clicking against Cleveland, and it looks a little bit more real now. Even the crowd in D.C. showed up, and it turned into the loudest regular season game I can remember.
"This was more of a playoff game," Beal said. "That was definitely a test and a battle for us. And we did a tremendous job handling it. We had some mishaps, but you know, you're going to have those here and there. I think we had aggressive mistakes. Things we can definitely learn from, and that we know we can get better at next time we play 'em."
As for Cleveland, it's true, the Cavs lose that game if LeBron doesn't put together an all-time performance and take over down the stretch. Likewise, when Kyrie Irving struggles like he did for the first few quarters, they're definitely vulnerable.
But Kyrie went nuts in overtime, and as long as LeBron's still putting together nights like Monday, it's hard to imagine them losing four times in any series before June. The Warriors will be a different monster, but at the very least, Monday was a reminder that the Cavs have weapons to outlast almost anyone.
Speaking of weapons: The Cavs night began with a Carmelo-for-Love rumor that broke in the middle of the first quarter. It ended with LeBron calling the report trash, while Love Instagrammed a Churchill quote, and the coach addressed Love's future directly.
"Yeah, we're gonna trade him tonight," Lue joked. "39 and 12, we're gonna trade him right now."
What I enjoyed most about Monday night's game was that there were no illusions at the end. There's a version of that game that ends with a big Wizards win, which would then force everyone to continue pretending the Cavs have real concerns. Kyrie might be called overrated, Love rumors would get louder, and meanwhile, there might be some wildly irresponsible Finals buzz in D.C.
What happened instead seems more honest. Kevin Love isn't getting traded. Kyrie is still a killer in crunch time. LeBron is still LeBron. The Wizards are very good and none of it's a fluke, but the Cavs are the measuring stick, and Washington's still a little bit short.
All of it felt right, at least in early February. Now let's do this again in May.