John Wall looked up and saw LeBron James and almost double-dribbled. Less than four minutes remained in the Washington Wizards’ 97-85 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena on Tuesday night and the momentum, locked on the Wizards’ side for most of the evening, had suddenly unhinged. James and company were lurking.
But Wall gathered himself and, as the shot clock dwindled to less than five seconds, he slung a one-handed bounce pass to Jared Dudley, who pump-faked once and glanced the ball off the backboard for two to push Washington’s lead back to 15 points.
Wall turned to the Wizards bench as he jogged back to play defense and motioned to the contingent to calm down. It was his night, and he wasn’t going to let it slip away.
The point guard emerged from a bewildering two-week personal rut to post his best performance of the young campaign with a season-high 35 points, 10 assists, five steals, four rebounds, and five turnovers in 41 minutes as the Wizards (7-8) snapped their four-game losing streak. The double-double was his first since Nov. 14, a span of six games, and he joined Russell Westbrook and James Harden as the only players with at least 30 points, 10 assists, and five steals in a game this season.
“He played like he was just back to being him,” said Wizards center Marcin Gortat, who contributed 15 points and 11 rebounds. “And it was huge.”
Wall headed the Wizards’ most complete effort of the season as their defense, the one that ranked in the NBA’s top 10 the last three seasons, held the Cavaliers, who never led, to a season-low point total and 33.7 percent shooting from the field. Cleveland (13-5) committed 19 turnovers, leading to 25 points for the Wizards, who began the game on a 10-0 run and pushed the ball at every opportunity.
The defeat is the Cavaliers’ first at home this season after a 9-0 start and second in their last 31 regular season games in Northeast Ohio dating back to January.
“Our defense was there,” said Wizards guard Bradley Beal, who scored 18 points on 6-of-19 shooting, including 1 of 10 from three-point range, and added nine rebounds and six assists. “And that’s what won us the game.”
Wizards players said they employed a strategy similar to what the Golden State Warriors utilized against the Cavaliers in the NBA Finals in the spring. They tried to force James to take contested jumpers. They fronted the post and sagged off centers Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson and crashed the boards aggressively. The trio of Kevin Love, Mozgov and Thompson - one of the biggest front lines in basketball - was limited to eight points and 22 rebounds. James compiled 24 points and 13 rebounds but had nine turnovers.
Washington even went as small as the Warriors dared, unveiling a lineup they hadn’t even used at practice that featured the 6-7 Dudley at center. The Wizards went on a 7-0 run with the tiny-ball configuration on the floor in the second quarter.
“I had some lineups out there tonight that I don’t know I had ever dreamed about,” Wizards Coach Randy Wittman said.
But it all started with Wall. Before Tuesday, Wall had not been himself for two weeks. He wasn’t lively. He often appeared disengaged. His jump shot was a mess and his turnover rate skyrocketed. The John Wall that had roused crowds with explosive athleticism and pinpoint passing went missing. The Wizards, consequently, were not a good basketball team.
Wall did not shy away from the reality. He assumed responsibility on more than one occasion during the confounding stretch and spent extra time before and after practices honing his shot. He candidly explained that if he doesn’t play at the all-star level he has established then the Wizards will not achieve their lofty goals this season.
“Everybody’s looking for excuses when you’re not playing well,” Wall said. “I’m not going to say my teammates are not screening, my teammates are not making shots. It’s me.”
Wall reverted back to his usual dynamic self Tuesday. He found a rhythm with his jumper - all he needed was some more lift, he had said Monday - and that created more space for himself and teammates. He posted up smaller Cavaliers point guards, something he worked on over the summer. He raided the rim with aggressive drives, which produced points for himself and for others.
He was at his best once again, and the Wizards displayed how potent they are when he is.
“For us to be as good as we want to be,” Dudley said, “it starts with John.”