One week after his return to the Washington Wizards following a two-month layoff to heal an ailing left knee, John Wall entered Thursday’s marquee matchup with the Cleveland Cavaliers intent on sending a message.
“No offense to the teams that are not going to the playoffs [but] I want to play against Cleveland and definitely against Boston, because those are who we might end up seeing in the playoffs,” Wall said, according to Chase Hughes of NBC Sports Washington. “So, leave a statement there.”
Through the first 40 minutes of the showdown at Quicken Loans Arena, Wall and the Wizards made one kind of statement. Down the stretch, though, they made quite another.
Washington sputtered in crunch time, coughing up a 17-point lead in 7 1/2 minutes to a rampaging LeBron James. Wall booted back-to-back potential game-winning or -extending possessions in the final 10 seconds to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, handing the Cavs a 119-115 win.
And here, we come in praise of LeBron, who came back from a brief early-fourth-quarter rest to offer more supporting documentation for his belief that he, and not anyone else, is the NBA’s Most Valuable Player:
As is his way, LeBron was unstoppable when it mattered. He bullied or blew past every defender the Wiz threw at him in the late stages, calmly and mercilessly dissecting the Washington defense, and leaving head coach Scott Brooks looking like he’d rather be anywhere in the world than on the sideline at the Q:
"soft serve machine ain't working again" pic.twitter.com/9Zo9tacrxf
— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) April 6, 2018
James finished with 33 points on 12-for-20 shooting, 14 assists and nine rebounds in 39 minutes of work. Once again, he carried the Cavs past the finish line in the clutch, and to their 11th win in 12 games, by bending the game and the opposition to his will:
LeBron James checked back into the game at the 7:48 mark of the 4th quarter with the Cavaliers trailing by 14. The Cavaliers outscored the Wizards 32-14 from that point on and James scored or assisted on 8 of the Cavaliers’ 9 made field goals during that span. pic.twitter.com/XIl4WU5D4X
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 6, 2018
The @cavs trailed by 16 points in final 6 minutes, the largest comeback in final 6 minutes in LeBron James' career (his teams were 0-152 all-time trailing by 15+ points in final 6 minutes). pic.twitter.com/U8tZY5oiuY
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 6, 2018
It was an extremely disappointing ending to a game in which the Wizards had started to make the statement they’d hoped they could.
Washington had roared back from a 15-point first-half deficit, clamping down on Cleveland’s raging offense in the second quarter and getting its own attack cranked up in the third. Wall and All-Star backcourt partner Bradley Beal alternated between delivering dimes and scorching the net. Otto Porter, as always, did a little of everything on the perimeter.
Markieff Morris played with just the sort of strong-arm force needed to derail the rolling Cavs, while also finishing up close and keeping the ball moving. The forever-maligned Wizards bench even chipped in, with microwave forward Mike Scott knocking down shots, Ian Mahinmi plugging the middle and reserve drink-stirrer Tomas Satoransky helping make sure everybody was still eating.
“The first half, we really just gave those guys too much credit. The second half, we started to compete,” Wall said after the game, according to Candace Buckner of the Washington Post. “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.”
The way the Wizards responded, outscoring Cleveland 78-48 between the start of the second and the 7:30 mark of the fourth … that was a statement, a reminder of the heights they can reach and that, when Wall and Beal are fully operational, they can trade haymakers with anybody.
But then, there were those last 7 1/2 minutes.
The Wiz finished the game 5-for-15 from the field, managing just 11 points in the final 7:35 and committing four turnovers that led to six Cleveland points. It was as if, sitting on a big lead with LeBron coming back in, the Wizards totally switched gears away from the movement and attacking that had sustained them in the guts of the game, and decided they’d be better served taking the air out of the ball and seeing if they could salt away the game 24 seconds at a time. They couldn’t.
After Cleveland went up by one on a pair of Jeff Green free throws with 21 seconds to go, that shell-shocked stasis manifested in a pair of stilted possessions in which, with the game on the line, Wall seemed to blink:
Last night, John Wall had 28 points, 14 assists, and a last 10 seconds he'd very much like to have back. pic.twitter.com/ZoK5iw6rO2
— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) April 6, 2018
How Wall blinked, and why — first on the step-back jumper guarded by LeBron that could’ve put the Wiz up one, and then on a drive against Green that turned into a kickout pass picked off by Cedi Osman that ended Washington’s chances of tying it up … well, those made a statement, too.
Wall gave voice to it after the game:
John Wall: "When I turn the corner and get down hill, I don't get those same calls [as LeBron James] when people put their hands on me or contact me. I already knew the play before it when I drove on LeBron, I wasn't going to get a call so why even put myself in that position?" pic.twitter.com/KLGeJ7zLFS
— Hoop District (@HoopDistrictDC) April 6, 2018
John Wall on his late turnover: "The same thing happened with Jeff Green, I knew that they wasn't going to give me a call so I tried to find a teammate for a wide open shot." pic.twitter.com/tyAJCMwZcj
— Hoop District (@HoopDistrictDC) April 6, 2018
“When I drove … well, it’s kind of tough, because I try to do the same thing as LeBron, but I’m not as athletic — I’m athletic, but not as tall,” Wall said. “But when I turn the corner and get downhill, I don’t get those same calls when people put hands on me or [make] contact with me. I already knew on the play before that, when I drove on LeBron, I wasn’t going to get a call. So why even put myself in that position?
“The same thing happened with Jeff Green,” Wall said. “I knew they wasn’t going to give me a call, so I tried to find a teammate for a wide-open shot. You just give that guy credit for making a great defensive stop.”
Brooks sounded a similar note.
“I think we missed a couple of layups. We missed a couple of threes. And then they shot 17 free throws in the fourth quarter,” the coach said after the game, according to Joshua A. Vinson of Hoop District. “Yeah, [LeBron is] the best player on the planet. He’s going to be able to attack, but we can’t keep putting him on the free-throw line.”
Of note: the Cavs did shoot 17 freebies in the fourth, but James only shot six of them. Washington also put Green, Osman, Rodney Hood and Larry Nance Jr. on the line as Cleveland waged its comeback, too.
The comeback wasn’t about LeBron getting calls that Wall doesn’t. It was about LeBron eviscerating small-ball Wizards lineups that had been very bad defensively in limited run throughout the season, and that had no prayer of stopping James in winning time on Thursday, and about the Wizards not being able to summon the requisite firepower to match on the other end.
And while Wall, like just about every star player, surely has a legitimate gripe about opponents getting away with uncalled defensive contact over the course of the game, A) it’s tough to watch that LeBron-defended possession and see an egregious missed whistle and B) no matter what, Wall has to be able to beat Jeff Green off the bounce and to the basket with the game on the line, rather than pulling up early to kick the ball out with a help defender waiting in the wings.
“[Wall] does create so much force to the basket and a lot of eyes are on him, but we have to find openings,” Brooks said after the game, according to Buckner. “Just got to live with those attack plays, and we made those throughout the game in the last three quarters.”
They didn’t make them when it counted, though. Maybe that’s a matter of a team needing to rediscover itself after spending years developing one identity, then two months fostering another without its top playmaker, and then having to reintegrate said star on the eve of the playoffs. Maybe, in the grand scheme, that matters way less than Wall generally being awesome on Thursday, scoring 28 points and dishing 14 assists:
And maybe none of that matters all that much, because losing Thursday didn’t even really hurt the Wizards too badly. The Milwaukee Bucks lost, too, so both teams dropped to 42-37. The Wizards still own a better in-conference record than the Bucks, meaning they’re still in the East’s No. 7 spot … which, after Thursday’s bombshell news out of Boston, is exactly where you want to be, if you’ve got to be in the lower reaches of the bracket.
If the current seeds hold, and if the Wizards can knock off the wounded Celtics, and if the Cavs can spirit away the Miami Heat, we’d be right back in Cleveland to start Round 2. Maybe, to the Wizards, the part worth focusing on is the indication that, with Wall back, they can hold their own and then some.
“We wanted to win more than anything, but the chips didn’t fall that way, but we move on,” Beal said, according to Buckner. “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.”
From the outside, the curious part will remain which Washington team comes to the fore in that matchup — the one capable of outscoring Cleveland by 30 in the middle of the game, or the one that fritters away a 16-point lead in the final six minutes — and which statement the Wizards made Thursday will wind up defining the rest of their season.
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