“One of 82,” Scott Brooks was saying Monday evening, and it seemed plausible. Sure, the Washington Wizards were the NBA’s hottest team, and the Cleveland Cavaliers were the defending champions, and Verizon Center was bursting at its ridiculous purple seams. Still, it was a Monday night in early February. How good could this be? “One of 82,” Brooks insisted, no different from Wednesday’s trip to Brooklyn.
Except then Washington’s most absurd NBA game in — one decade? Two? — roared its way through Chinatown. This was Bradley Beal entering his national-TV assassin mode, and Kyrie Irving doing him one better. It was an arena partying over a three-point Washington lead with 3.4 seconds left, until LeBron James banked in a twisting last-second three pointer, as unbelievable as anything Tom Brady did in Houston. It was the Wizards — the Washington Wizards — going back-and-forth with the Eastern Conference favorites in maybe the best NBA game of the season, a 140-135 overtime heart attack that left at least three pulsating impressions.
One: The Wizards’ 10-week-long surge was no fluke. Two: The once-simmering Washington-Cleveland rivalry finally emerged from a depressing hibernation, and let’s please do this six or seven more times in May. And three: The best Wizards team in a generation is again staring at a familiar postseason roadblock, a balding force of nature who just can’t let Washingtonians be happy.
Start with the last one, because James took time out from his budding GM career to spew heartbreak on the Wizards for approximately the 173rd time in his career. He was superhuman as a distributor, with a career-high 17 assists. He passed the ball at impossible angles, to impossible positions, single-handedly turning meandering possessions into wide-open three-pointers. (“He makes the game easy,” as Brooks put it.) He was everywhere in the fourth quarter, scoring 13 points, with his baskets earning simultaneous groans and cheers. And he was Brady at the end, flipping a hopeless situation into overtime just seconds after fans had been chanting “M-V-P” at a different guy. (“Kind of have to chalk it up to the basketball gods,” Kelly Oubre Jr. said, which is fine, as long as you grant that James is one of those deities.)
Good luck finding a postseason path that doesn’t run through James. And so this suddenly thrilling Wizards team — described as one of the East’s heavyweights on TNT’s broadcast — might start wondering whether it has enough bodies to throw at that familiar face in April or May.
By some heavenly act of divine mercy, James fouled out in overtime, for the first time since 2014. Not long after, both Markieff Morris and Oubre joined him with six fouls. Is this franchise ready to trust its postseason fate to Tomas Satoransky?
Maybe it’s too early to be thinking about Wizards-Cavs in the Eastern Conference semifinals, or even the Eastern finals. But it was impossible not to see in this game a resumption of that rivalry from a decade ago, when the Wizards and Cavaliers both appeared to be rising threats, who coincidentally happened to loathe each other. Once again, the stars were stars: Beal had 41 points, Kevin Love had 39, Irving was an overtime tornado, Otto Porter Jr. couldn’t miss. Once again, the fans rejected their seats, and children cried real tears. There were even playoff fouls — or at least playoff-lite collisions.
“An instant classic,” Brooks said.
“Epic,” longtime broadcaster Steve Buckhantz said. “One of the best regular season games I’ve ever seen.”
“We knew they had this game circled,” James said, “And we knew in order for us to win we needed to play some inspired basketball, and we did that.”
The rivalry’s peak feels like a lifetime ago, with James the only character who remains. But this three-hour palpitation made you forget about the intervening years of misery and just demand more, as soon as possible. There were 16 lead changes on this night, 15 ties, and too many fans clutching their heads in agony, and then joy, and then agony for the gif-makers to keep up.
“Probably one of the best games of the year,” Wall said, an assessment no one would dispute.
Now what to make of the result for a Wizards team that hadn’t lost at home since Dec. 6? Forget about moral victories, not when national analysts had been calling the Wizards one of the four or five best teams in the league, and especially not when the Cavaliers had looked erratic and sometimes disinterested in recent weeks.
Still, look at the last 10 weeks, when the Zombie Wizards rose from the dead. Before Monday night, they had the best record in the Eastern Conference since Dec. 1. They also boasted the NBA’s best home record in that span, plus a 17-game home win streak. They had the best record in the NBA since Jan. 6, and they still do now, at 14-3. They’re 28-13 in their last 41 games. That’s an unimaginable 56-win pace. You don’t have to keep wondering if this will last.
A victory in this crazy game — one that captivated casual fans both in Washington and across the country — would have announced Washington as a real challenger in the East. Still, the point was made: Serious professional basketball has returned to D.C., basketball that demands we all pay attention. Yes, the schedule gets ugly in March, and the bench remains a concern. (The Wizards are 29th in bench minutes and 29th in bench points, and they got just 16 bench points Monday night.)
But this one was, as Wall put it, “a playoff-type atmosphere,” with roaring fans and brilliant turns and hard-to-believe heroics. Porter, the league’s leading three-point shooter, hit 5 of 7. Irving watched James go to the bench, and then he delivered 11 brilliant overtime points. Wall wasn’t at his best, but he still recorded his 31st double-double — more than the East’s next three guards combined. LeBron James was LeBron James.
And in the end, there was an overtime loss that slammed the home team in the gut. Wall stared at the ground as he walked off the court. Beal uttered a one-word commentary that can’t be repeated here. And Brooks’s message to his team after the game did not make reference to this being just one game out of 82.
“Hell of an effort,” he told them. “Hell of a game.”