CLEVELAND — The Washington Wizards didn't have to search for motivation on Wednesday night in their rematch with Cleveland. Just five days earlier, they blew a 15-point lead at home and made a series of miscues in the final minutes of regulation before losing to the Cavaliers in overtime.
"We definitely owe them," Bradley Beal said before the game at Quicken Loans Arena.
Their matchup Saturday ended with Cavaliers backup Jarrett Jack making a layup after the Wizards had conceded the game in the closing seconds. An angry Nene shouted that he would remember Jack running up the score. Beal felt the need to address the issue personally with Jack, a conversation that led to others separating the two players. In the locker room afterward, a dejected John Wall spoke in mumbled tones after being upstaged by fellow former No. 1 overall pick Kyrie Irving.
With revenge on their minds, the Wizards built a 27-point lead behind Wall's playmaking, Beal's sharpshooting and Nene's inside scoring Wednesday but had to hold on for a harder-than-necessary 98-91 victory. When asked how his heart was doing after his team nearly lost another game it had in control, Coach Randy Wittman joked, “It’s always better after a win.”
Beal scored a team-high 26 points — his third straight game with at least 25 — and matched career highs with eight assists and six three-pointers. The Wizards had 31 assists for the second straight night.
But after nailing jumper after jumper through the first 36 minutes, Beal was at the center of the fourth-quarter meltdown. During a two-minute span in the fourth quarter, Beal had three turnovers, two personal fouls and two missed shots — including an air ball three-pointer — as the Cavaliers focused their defense on Wall and Nene.
“We were fine,” Beal said he told himself as the lead dwindled. “They sped me up a few times and they did a great job denying me the ball the whole second half. In order for us to win, we had to bear down. We’re confident, but we know we still have a lot to prove, and we still have a lot of work to do.”
Wall had 15 points and nine assists, playing with tenacity on both ends through the first three quarters. Early in the game, Wall stole a lazy pass by Cavaliers center Andrew Bynum, sprinted down the floor and threw down a thunderous dunk. He then made Cavaliers fans start booing in the third quarter, when he dribbled up the floor and used a Marcin Gortat screen to get to the basket for another dunk that put the Wizards ahead 73-46.
Then, suddenly, the ball movement and quality shot selection came to a screeching halt. The offense stalled, the defense became lackadaisical and a game that seemed well under control grew tight — mainly due to Irving.
In his previous meeting with Wall, Irving matched his career high with 41 points and was a one-man wrecking crew in overtime, scoring nine points to match Wall’s total for the game. Wall acknowledged that he was “terrible” in that game and held Irving to just 10 points through the first three quarters.
But Irving came alive with a one-man run in the fourth. He scored 11 straight points, making a series of one-legged runners to lead his team on an improbable 23-6 run that brought the Cavaliers to 86-82.
“We kind of enjoyed it too much. We just relaxed a little too much,” Gortat said.
The Wizards (4-7) worked the ball into Nene, who drew a foul and made both free throws. Irving answered with a driving basket over Wall. Then Beal made a huge pull-up jumper. Washington was 10 for 10 from the foul line in the fourth quarter.
“We knew we gave a game away to them in our house and they almost took another here,” Wall said. “We knew we was tired. We had to fight hard in the second half. Give them credit for not quitting.”
Nene was a stabilizing force as he matched his season high with 24 points and added eight rebounds and six assists. Martell Webster also had 15 points as he continues to fill in for Trevor Ariza, who missed his third straight game with a strained right hamstring.
“I thank my teammates, to keep the focus, the concentration to close that game, because we did an amazing job that whole game and it would be tough if we lose that game,” Nene said, adding that the team really wanted payback after Jack’s layup. “Heck yeah. That’s disrespect. He disrespect us and we showed them.”
After losing four in a row, the Wizards finally had a breakthrough Tuesday against Minnesota at Verizon Center, where they made the plays required down the stretch — from free throws and jumpers on offense to getting stops on defense. They held on, though, and have won games on consecutive nights for the first time this season, riding the momentum of a players-only meeting before the victory over Minnesota.
“It’s easy to get comfortable,” Webster said. “It’s hard to focus and have a sense of urgency to have a big lead. They made us pay for that. We did a good job of it for three quarters and we just let it slip away. That’s a step for us, in this maturation process, to understand that you just can’t get comfortable in this league with leads.”