The Wizards are the best team in the Eastern Conference, and the Cavaliers are afraid of them.
It’s true, I swear. I heard it Friday afternoon, right from the mouths of Bradley Beal and John Wall, right there on ESPN. That was about eight hours before LeBron James bulldozed over them, through them, around them, between them, and on top of them in one of the greatest shows of his career; before his Cavaliers flicked away this happily chatty Wizards group whose message had been delivered behind a microphone instead of on the court.
You know what? On second thought, Cleveland didn’t seem afraid.
Washington has spent consecutive Friday nights on national television against the NBA’s two marquee franchises. Last week, the Wizards coughed up an 18-point lead in a loss at Golden State. This time, they were handled on their home court by the Cavaliers — well, really by James. And this 130-122 result might force a temporary softening of Washington’s rhetoric.
The Wizards have now witnessed greatness two Fridays in a row — transcendent, impossible greatness from James, who poured in 57 points, made shots you wouldn’t even attempt on a Nerf hoop, and probably would have made the Monstars cower. He was a giant stomping through a peasant village — “We tried everything. We tried everything,” Washington Coach Scott Brooks lamented.
And because of James, you might have forgiven the Wizards for this loss, if you hadn’t watched their matinee performance. That’s when Beal and Wall continued to lean into their unfamiliar status as Eastern Conference heavyweights — leaning mouth first. Their frank confidence is appealing, as is so much else about these Wizards. But someone will have to explain the utility of Washington’s two best players providing Cleveland with a month’s worth of motivation during an interview that became the talk of the NBA. Going at LeBron James verbally, if you can believe it, didn’t pay off on Friday night. Maybe next time?
Wall on the Cavaliers: “We feel like we’re their biggest threat.”
Beal on the Eastern Conference: “I feel like we’re the best team.”
Wall on the Cavaliers: “I think they didn’t want the number one seed [last season] for a reason, because we would have played them in the second round. . . . I think they wanted to see us in the Eastern Conference finals.”
Beal on the buzz: “That’s always been kind of our M.O. is we’ve got to get some respect. You know, we’re playing against top teams, we’re beating these top teams and we’re not getting the recognition we need. . . . But now we have it, so we’ve got to do something with it.”
They didn’t, not on this night, when Wall missed seven free throws and Washington’s team defense was inadequate even before James took over. In the same interview, the two guards earnestly and accurately ticked off the keys to future success. They would need to play better defense. They would need to start games with more fire. They would need to “be on our Ps and Qs to the T,” as Beal put it.
Well, give ’em a D on all of those goals. The Cavs scored 130 points on 56 percent shooting. Washington was ready to play, as long as the game was Red Light Green Light, and all the red lights were busted. The sprinting Cavs had 42 points after the first quarter, when they made 77 percent of their shots!
“We were scoring; that wasn’t the problem,” said Wall, who injured his left shoulder, left the arena in a sling and said his limb was “on fire,” with his future status unclear. “They were getting easy layups, three-point plays and wide-open threes, and it was bad communication. … To score as many points as we have, those are supposed to be games that you can win.”
James was superhuman — “very rarely do you see a guy hit like 10 straight heat check shots,” Brooks observed — and so maybe you just throw this box score away and move on to Toronto. But this game came two days after the Wizards lost a 22-point lead at home, two days after they gave up 122 to the Suns, two days after T.J. Warren notched a career-high 40 points. And it came after two days of talk about how their improvement must come on the defensive end. Instead, Washington allowed 104 points in the first three quarters — after giving up 97 in the final three quarters on Wednesday.
“We’ve got to do better,” Brooks said. “We’ve got to do better.”
Humility doesn’t make headlines, and this could be the most talented Washington team in 40 years. Still, unless your goals are generating pregame viral videos and boosting Washington Post web traffic, it might be time for more showing and less telling.
James shook off any suggestion that the Wizards had given him motivation — “I really don’t have a comment about it,” he said, saying he was focused more on his own locker room and his own team’s struggles. But he did seem to delight in his scoring spree, which stopped Cleveland’s four-game losing streak and will put a pause in the Cavs’ obituaries.
“I pretty much feel like they would rather me score than share the ball,” James said when asked about Washington’s hesitancy to double-team him. “I guess they figured at some point I’d miss. And I did. I missed 11 shots.”
See, those lines bring laughs when you’ve just won a game, or when you’ve appeared in seven straight NBA Finals. But none of it really works without results, when you don’t yet have a heavyweight track record. Not the vocal battles with LaVar Ball. Not the suggestion that the Wizards — the Wizards! — have a target on their backs. Not the big words about the postseason. (“We’ve just got to find a way to get over that hump and meet them in the Eastern Conference finals,” Wall said of the Cavaliers before the game.)
Wall named this his “Wolf Season,” and it’s a catchy label. Good ring to it. Rolls right off the tongue. But it’s becoming something of a Woof Season, with more chatter than Tony Kornheiser’s restaurant. None of it seems likely to help bring about those long-discussed goals of 5o wins and a second-round playoff victory. Unless yelling real loudly at guys taking uncontested layups becomes a viable defensive strategy.
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