WASHINGTON — LeBron James and the defending NBA Champion Cleveland Cavaliers know from truly big regular season games. Whether the Eastern Conference leaders view their next matchup, Monday at the surging Washington Wizards, at that level is unclear.
For John Wall, there is no doubt.
Cleveland won at Washington 105-94 on Nov. 11 amid a 2-8 start for the Wizards. So much in the nation’s capital has changed since.
The Wizards (30-20) continued their home and overall winning streaks with Saturday’s 105-91 over New Orleans by closing the game with a 15-0 run over the final 5:51 against the Pelicans. Washington is 17-0 at home since Dec. 6, has won seven in a row regardless of location and is a league-best 14-2 since Jan. 6.
All that winning moved Washington from playoff hopeful to third in the East. The first place squad arrives in their building next. While Cleveland (34-15) hasn’t played at a championship level in recent weeks and guard Kyrie Irving sat out Saturday’s win over New York, the Cavaliers remain the Eastern Conference team to beat.
All of those factors plus a national television audience ratchet up the hype for this early February game. Wall won’t deny it.
“It probably is,” the four-time All-Star said after scoring 24 points and fueling the late surge against New Orleans. “I’ve been in some big games before, but I don’t think one bigger this year. They’ve been playing OK, but they’re the defending champs. We know what team we have to chase in the East.”
Though the Cavs are only 8-7 since Jan. 6, they have won two straight and four of five. James had 32 points and 10 assists in Saturday’s 111-104 victory over the Knicks. He played 40 minutes as New York’s fourth-quarter rally kept the game in doubt longer than anticipated. The Knicks outscored the Cavaliers 36-27 in the fourth.
“Instead of LeBron playing 32 minutes he had to play 40 because we messed around with the game,” Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said to Cleveland.com. “He got a little tired but we had to keep him on the floor so we had to slow the game down and just try to take advantage of our half-court offense, which they switched a lot of stuff and made us stagnant.”
With Irving sidelined due to a right thigh injury, DeAndre Liggins started, but James largely took over point guard duties. The scenario put more of a spotlight on his recent comments about Cleveland’s roster needing more playmakers.
“I mean at the end of the day, guys gotta step up,” James said. “Kyrie is more than just a playmaker; he’s more than just a scorer. He’s one of our leaders. It’s difficult, but guys gotta step up in his absence. … We gotta understand that but we as veterans we gotta pick them up.”
James, Irving (who is expected to play Monday) and Kevin Love will represent Cleveland in the 2017 NBA All-Star Game. Wall is Washington’s lone representative, but the team’s entire starting lineup has played at a high level.
Wall and backcourt partner Bradley Beal both average over 21 points per game. Otto Porter leads the NBA in 3-point shooting percentage. Big men Markieff Morris and Marcin Gortat are controlling the basket and scoring efficiently. The Wizards are third in the NBA with a 47.6 field goal percentage.
“Confidence, everybody’s confidence is high,” Morris said of changes during the streak. “Everybody’s playing with a lot of swag. We just have to keep continuing to play together and playing defense.”