CLEVELAND — The Washington Wizards have earned a special chapter in the story of LeBron James’s 15th NBA season.
No other opponent brings out his best quite like the Wizards. James has scored more points this season against Washington than any other team — and he even celebrated a career milestone of reaching 29,000 points while crushing the Wizards for 57 during the first matchup in November.
Thursday, James capped the regular season series with another lordly performance in the Cavaliers’ 119-115 win over Washington.
James masterminded the Cavaliers’ fourth-quarter comeback. With his team down 17 points with just 7:35 remaining, James took over by scoring or assisting on eight of his team’s final nine made shots. James nearly matched his season numbers against the Wizards — the only team he has averaged a triple-double against — with 33 points, 14 assists and nine rebounds.
For James, the comeback represented the largest in his career. According to ESPN Stats & Info, his teams were 0-152 while trailing by 15 or more points in the final six minutes of regulation.
“Like I said before the game, I’ll say it after the game and probably five years from now I’ll say the same thing: he’s the best player in the league,” Coach Scott Brooks said. “You don’t get to see players like him often.”
The Wizards, however, own the tiebreaker and thus would draw the Boston Celtics in the first round of the playoffs. Blowing a 17-point advantage to Cleveland certainly helped the Wizards stay in seventh. However, for three and a half quarters, Washington looked anything like a team bent on losing.
Washington overcame a 15-point deficit by making a statement of its own. There was John Wall diving for a lost possession, never considering the left knee he spent eight weeks strengthening. Then there was Markieff Morris, who subtly changed the game with his tough-guy tactics. By the time Bradley Beal made a three-pointer with 7:35 remaining, Washington led, 104-87.
“The first half, we really just gave those guys too much credit. The second half, we started to compete,” Wall said. “We came out and had a great third quarter — playing well, ball movement, everybody’s excited. And just played Wizards basketball and that’s the way we were supposed to play.”
But Wall, who had a team-high 28 points and 14 assists in 38 minutes, could not hold off James when it counted.
After the Wizards’ lead vanished, they had two chances in the final moments to tie or take the lead. With Cleveland leading 116-115, Wall missed a midrange jumper. When James made only 1 of 2 free throws, Wall pushed the ball upcourt but his errant pass was picked off by Cleveland’s Cedi Osman, sealing the game for the Cavaliers (49-30), winners of 11 of their past 12.
Beal finished with 19 points while every Wizards starter and reserve forward Mike Scott scored in double figures. After the game, James and Wall shared a hug and some words.
“We wanted to win more than anything but the chips didn’t fall that way but we move on,” Beal said. “It’s definitely a statement game for both teams. They showed us what they’re bringing. We showed them what we’re bringing. So I’m curious to see what happens if that matchup happens.”
Before the Wizards’ three-game road trip, Washington ranked sixth in the Eastern Conference and a first-round meeting in Cleveland was a possibility. Backup point guard Tomas Satoransky, sharing his private and honest thoughts, said he would be “pleased with a different matchup” for Washington. Satoransky did not advocate for the Wizards to start blowing games. Just that the team should do whatever possible to avoid an early tussle with James who has won his last 21 first-round playoff games.
Conversely, a postseason matchup with the second-seeded Boston Celtics appeared to be more palatable. Boston would lack backcourt depth because of injuries to Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart. Then Thursday afternoon, the Celtics’ postseason hopes were dealt a blow by the news that Irving required more surgery and he would not return for several months.
Even so, the announcement provided no boost to the Wizards. Washington started the game teetering on the defensive end as Cleveland connected on 6 of 10 shots from three-point range.
Wall, in his third game back from a knee injury of his own, scored or assisted on 22 of his team’s 26 points in the opening quarter but since he played all 12 minutes, he produced a minus-13 rating.
By the second quarter, the lead swelled to 15 points and James had turned into a cheerleader, twirling around the sidelines after teammate Jordan Clarkson’s 360-degree dunk. The night was turning into an easy laugh for the Cavaliers. Then, the Wizards awakened.
When Morris came back on the court, he made sure that a three-pointer shooter like Kevin Love felt the force of his elbow while running to open spots. Also, Morris sparked the team’s 8-0 closing run with a cutting layup at the rim.
The lead, down to 59-54 by halftime, didn’t seem as insurmountable. And the Cavaliers didn’t seem as scary.
After intermission, Washington outscored the Cavaliers 36-23. The bench, with Kelly Oubre Jr.’s stout defense and crucial shots like Scott hitting from the left corner arc then Satoransky matching from the other side, continued the momentum into the fourth quarter.
Until James once again turned into a Wizards killer.
“For 15 years a lot of people have been trying to figure it out,” Wall said of stopping James. “You try to play off of him and make him make jump shots and as a 6-8, 6-9 athletic power forward you still get to the place where you want to get to.”