John Wall and Kyrie Irving never had a chance to form a rivalry last season, with the two former No. 1 overall picks limited to playing one game and one quarter against each other. Wall had the upper hand, winning both head-to-head meetings – statistically and on the scoreboard – but Irving ascended to stardom this season while Wall sat the first three months with a stress injury in his left knee.
The Wall-Irving debate never gathered much steam and Irving started to make separation after turning heads when the two point guards were part of the Team USA select that scrimmaged with the eventual gold-medal Olympic squad. Irving, still two months shy of his 21st birthday, is now being mentioned among the NBA’s elite point guards after dazzling during all-star weekend in Houston, where he won the three-point contest and scored 15 points in his first all-star game.
The 22-year-old Wall is more of a playmaker than scorer and still has much to prove to a steadily growing chorus of detractors questioning his value as a franchise building block and if a team can succeed if he’s the best player. Now that he has returned and led the Wizards (20-41) on a respectable run, Wall won’t have a chance to measure himself against Irving when Washington faces the Cavaliers on Tuesday for the third and final time.
Irving continues to get banged up and will be out for three to four weeks – and possibly the remainder of the season – with a sprained left shoulder suffered on Sunday in the Cavaliers’ loss to Toronto.
“It’s just tough because that’s who I was waiting to play against because he’s been having a good year,” Wall said. “He’s a talented point guard. It’s always great to go against another talented point guard.”
A gifted shooter and dangerous offensive weapon when he is able to play, Irving has struggled, however, to stay healthy since going No. 1 overall in 2011, a year after Wall.
Irving has already missed 14 games this season with a broken left index finger and a hyperextended right knee and played with a face mask earlier this season because of a broken jaw. He also broke his right hand punching some wall padding last summer in Las Vegas while practicing with the Cavaliers’ summer league team.
During his rookie of the year campaign last season, Irving missed 14 games – four with a concussion and 10 with a sprained right shoulder, including the Cavaliers’ lone win over the Wizards, a 98-89 victory on April 14, when Wall had 19 points and nine assists. When the teams met again on April 15, Irving was limited to just 10 minutes in the first quarter because of the stomach flu and Wall had one of his better games of the season with 21 points, 13 assists, seven rebounds and seven steals in a 96-85 victory.
In the first and only full matchup last season, Wall had 24 points and five assists as the Wizards won, 101-98. Irving had 20 points, with eight coming in the final 2 1/2 minutes.
“He’s been good,” Wall said of Irving. “Fourth quarter, is his main quarter, he cruises throughout and they do a great job of giving him isos and giving him plays. He’s a scoring point guard and he can shoot the ball very well, so in the fourth quarter, he’s extra aggressive. That’s when he takes over.”
Wall missed the first two meetings this season with his knee injury, watching from the bench in a suit as Irving torched the Wizards for a combined 55 points in Cleveland victories.
This time around, Wall will play but his backcourt mate Bradley Beal will likely join Irving on the sideline. Beal will miss his fourth straight game with a sprained left ankle, but Coach Randy Wittman wants the Wizards to focus on claiming another win against another fellow lottery team.
“Last chance, too. We only play these guys three times. So this is our last opportunity. We’re 0-fer against these guys,” Wittman said. “We want to come out here and just try to get to the point where we establish in playing – win or lose – a good way. Not having a roller coaster like we were not too long ago, where we were consistent in our play and you’re going to have situations where, depending on who you’re playing and how hot they may be, you might not win that game, but you can walk way saying, ‘We played the right way, we were right there and we didn’t win.’ That’s kind of what we want to focus in on these last 20 games.”
A win over the Cavaliers (21-42) would allow the Wizards to move above them and claim the fourth-worst record in the NBA. Since Wall returned to the lineup, the Wizards are 15-13 but 4-7 against teams with losing records. Wall wants a win over Cleveland whether Irving plays or not.
“If you want to be a playoff team, coach said like the last month or two, those are the teams you got to beat. No offense to none of those teams, but those are teams you don’t want to lose to. So we’re pushing ourselves forward to beat those teams,” Wall said. “When we play the good teams we play with a different energy, we have to do that against those type of teams…That’s the main key, playing harder than them without turning the ball over.”