As the Washington Wizards went through a shoot-around Saturday afternoon, forward Otto Porter Jr. remained in the trainer’s room receiving treatment on his right thigh bruise. After the session, Coach Scott Brooks called Porter “tough” and summoned memories of previous instances when he had responded well to treatment. More than ever, the Wizards (16-13) could use Porter’s resolve and his ability to heal quickly.
LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers (21-8), who had won 16 of their last 17 games entering their Saturday night contest against the Utah Jazz, are coming to Capital One Arena on Sunday. During the team’s last meeting Nov. 3, James scored 57 points, the most by an opponent in the Wizards’ arena. Although no Wizards player could stop James that night, the odds won’t be any better Sunday if Porter cannot play. As of Saturday, Porter was considered questionable.
“Hopefully he can play, because we’re going to need him,” Brooks said. “He’s one of our best players against one of the best teams coming in.”
As James approaches his 33rd birthday, he is in the midst of another MVP-caliber season. He entered Saturday averaging 28.1 points, 9.1 assists and 8.3 rebounds. On Thursday, James tied Larry Bird for sixth place with his 59th career triple-double. If Porter remains on the sideline, the Wizards will try defense-by-committee to slow James. It didn’t work in November, but the bar for improvement is low.
“We’re hoping to keep him to 56. That would be a better game for us,” Brooks said, tongue-in-cheek. “One point. Hey, small incremental gains, they’re always important.”
The list of potential James stoppers starts with Kelly Oubre Jr, the likely candidate to start at the three spot in place of Porter. The third-year forward noted how James made half of the Cavs’ 46 shots during that game and had the Wizards done a better job in limiting other players — Derrick Rose contributed 20 points in the Cavs’ 130-122 win over Washington — then the result could have been different.
“One person shouldn’t be able to beat you. We beat ourselves that game,” Oubre said. “The stats were pretty similar as far as team stats. LeBron just had an impactful game, but we let other guys kind of chip in and help them get that victory.”
In the previous meeting, the Wizards did not double-team James, who often exploits the tactic with his court vision and ability to find the open shooter. If they remain in single coverage Sunday, then Oubre could pitch in as one of the several rotating bodies. But while Oubre has the length and athleticism to disrupt passes from James, he will give up at least 45 pounds against the powerful veteran — a fact James surely recognizes and will utilize to his advantage in post-up plays.
“Kelly is definitely going to have his hands full. We’re talking about one of the greatest players to ever play the game, playing at a high level, MVP probably right now,” Brooks said. “But I think we’re going to need bodies around him. Being down a body doesn’t help, but we have to manage it without any excuses and give ourselves the best chance. The only way you can do that is by competing against who’s in front of you.”
To match James’s strength, the Wizards could use power forward Markieff Morris, who made his season debut Nov. 3 against the Cavs after missing the first seven games and training camp while recovering from surgery and serving a one-game suspension.
After that loss, Morris confidently responded, “hell yeah,” when asked whether he could he have helped stop the James barrage had he been healthier. Now entering his 22nd game of the season, Morris should get the chance to back up his words because, when James calls for a pick-and-roll with Jae Crowder or Kevin Love, he will have to switch over and face James one-on-one.
“It’s not going to be easy, no matter who’s in front of him,” Brooks said. “LeBron, he sees so many plays ahead of the play and he’s always looking to pass other than when he played us. He was looking to score.”
While Morris has yet to recover his pre-surgery explosiveness and criticized himself for “hacking” too much during the Wizards’ 100-91 win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday night, he looks forward to the matchup with the Cavaliers as a barometer for his team.
“We got to go out there and play our game. If we go out there and play like ourselves, we’re capable of beating anybody in the league,” Morris said. “No matter who it is. We just got to play our game and protect home court.
“We need to measure up against the best teams in the league.”
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