The Washington Wizards were less than a minute away from possibly closing out the Cleveland Cavaliers, snapping a three-game losing streak and restoring some of the good vibes that filled their locker room the last time they played at Verizon Center. But in a crushing sequence of miscues in the final seconds, the Wizards gave Kyrie Irving and the Cavaliers a chance to hang around, before they eventually lost, 103-96, in overtime.
With his team holding a one-point lead in the fourth quarter, Bradley Beal stripped Irving of the ball and took off dribbling, with nothing impeding his path to the rim. Coach Randy Wittman was so confident Beal was going to put away the game that he turned his back to the play.
“I’m getting ready to hear the crowd and I hear a moan,” Wittman said. “I don’t know what happened.”
Inexplicably, Beal lost control of his dribble, outran the ball, slipped and fell, giving the ball right back to the Cavaliers. Irving made two free throws on the other end to give his team the lead. The Wizards (2-7) got the ball into Nene, who got fouled but made just 1 of 2 free throws to tie the game at 90. Then, Nene made amends when he knocked the ball away from Irving and into the hands of Garrett Temple.
But instead of calling a timeout, Temple dribbled to avoid traveling, taking a precious second off the clock and keeping the Wizards from advancing the ball beyond half court. Nene then missed a desperation heave at the end of regulation, setting the stage for Irving to bury the Wizards by personally outscoring them, 9-6, in the extra frame.
“It’s just about making plays down the stretch,” Wittman said after the Wizards lost their fourth consecutive game. “We got to make the plays where you got confidence you can do it. It didn’t feel that way. They were.”
The Cavaliers arrived in Washington on equally wobbly footing, having lost three in a row and coming off an embarrassing loss the night before at home. But they had confidence down the stretch because they had Irving, who matched his career high with 41 points and tallied 18 alone in the final 14 minutes or regulation and overtime.
Irving handily claimed his one-on-one duel with fellow former No. 1 pick John Wall, as he took 15 more shots but scored 32 more points. After letting the Cavaliers fall behind by 15 points in the first half, Irving rallied his team back with an incredible barrage of three three-pointers in the final 89 seconds of the second period.
“Irving, he did an amazing job,” Nene said. “He put the whole team back in the game. That’s what a great player does.”
Wall had a game-high 12 assists but an otherwise forgettable night shooting the ball. He scored nine points and appeared to be laboring for much of the game as he continues to battle back spasms.
During breaks, Wall rested flat on his back while applying a heat pack. Wall wasn’t aggressive offensively, and when he decided to shoot, he was rarely in rhythm. He missed 10 of his 13 field goal attempts.
“It’s not a one-on-one battle with me. It’s the Washington Wizards against the Cleveland Cavaliers that has a superstar and a star over here on this team,” Wall said. “I feel like this is another that we let slip away. You can’t win on the road, you’ve got to find a way to win close games at home.”
Beal carried most of the load offensively, scoring a team-high 28 points and connecting on four three-pointers, but didn’t get many more looks after giving the Wizards an 87-82 lead with three minutes left in the fourth quarter. With the Wizards leading 89-88, Beal was prepared for a breakaway, but said he tried to get the ball out to Wall and lost control.
“That probably could have won us the game, honestly,” Beal said. “I definitely slipped. It was definitely a costly play.”
Nene called out the Wizards’ “young guys” and asked them to get their “heads out their butts” after a 13-point loss in San Antonio. When the team returned to practice on Friday, Wittman had Nene address the players, including Wall, who were offended by comments and they hashed out their differences. With the spotlight squarely on him to step up, Nene responded by scoring a season-high 24 points, but the Wizards have now lost four straight to the Cavaliers.
“We fight from the beginning to the end, but the results don’t come to our side,” Nene said. “It’s just the beginning of the season. Definitely not cool to be losing like that, but it’s still the beginning. We still have 75 more games. But we need to play better faster, because it’s very easy to say, ‘We’re going to be cool.’ But tomorrow, you never know.”
Wittman admitted that he is “searching” for a unit that will give him consistent production, but his rotation was depleted with Trevor Ariza (strained right hamstring) and Al Harrington (sore right knee) both forced to sit out. The Wizards’ bench provided just nine points and eight turnovers, but the difference was Washington’s inability to slow down Irving.
“He was in the zone,” Beal said. “We did our best on him. When you have a player like that, of his caliber, you have to make other guys on the team beat you. He definitely got hot.”