Welcome to King of the Court, our daily celebration of the best performances in basketball from the night that was. We’ll be keeping track of the best player of every night of the NBA season, and tallying the results as we go along.
King of the Sport: LeBron James
Danny Chau: Football season is over, so, naturally, the most spectacular play from the night after Super Bowl LI was a touchdown strike on an inbounds play from Kevin Love to LeBron James. It was a Kevin Love outlet special — a roughly 80-foot bullet pass to James for an improbable turnaround 3-point fadeaway from the right wing to send the Cleveland Cavaliers into overtime against the Washington Wizards.
It’s 2017. Improbability is the name of the game. We discovered the time machines that professional tennis has been hiding from mankind; we not only anticipate Hail Marys, we expect them; we just witnessed a wide receiver make a catch in between the legs of his opponent with three defenders crashing upon him — impossible is nothing, and amazing is happening on a fairly regular basis.
While the 140–135 final score of Monday’s game-of-the-season candidate suggests a mindless playground affair between two of the best teams in the East, there was a palpable postseason electricity flowing in the game’s undercurrent. Both teams reveled in the splendors of spacing; the shots rained down like wine into the chalices at a bacchanalia. The Cavs, in particular, channeled the guillotine offense that swept through the Atlanta Hawks last May, the root cause of at least three of the Hawks’ identity crises since. The Wizards shot 50.5 percent from the field and 41.4 percent from 3 and somehow that paled in comparison to the Cavs shooting 53.3 for the night and hitting exactly half of their 38 3-point attempts. If there is a persistent (and valid) complaint of the pace-and-space era of NBA basketball, it’s that the reliance on perimeter efficacy means that when teams are off, an entire game can collapse on itself. Lucky for us, we caught the inverse on Monday: We saw a stairway to basketball heaven.
LeBron scored 32 points and had a career-high 17 assists, eight of which led to 3-point makes, which means that 74 (or 61.7 percent) of the Cavs’ 120 points in regulation can be traced back to James. This is a completely staggering percentage; for reference, James Harden accounted for 65 percent of the Rockets’ total points in his most recent 50-point triple-double against the Sixers in late January.
Monday night seemed to both validate and invalidate LeBron’s concerns about the team’s construction. On one hand, LeBron played 42 minutes, most of which occurred in regulation (he fouled out within the first minute of overtime) and had 99 touches in the game, numbers you’d expect from a player carrying a one-man show, not someone who plays for one of the two actual superteams in the league. He was responsible for five of Love’s six 3s on the night and assisted on over half of Tristan Thompson’s field goals; the load that LeBron still has to carry for this team is real.
James is a perfectionist, and it shows in myriad ways. At its most constructive, his perfectionism is seen in him mentoring players during games on how best to position oneself on defense; at its most petulant, it’s seen in all of the recent comments about the team’s need for another playmaker when the team has two other bona fide All-Stars already taking on significant amounts of responsibility on a regular basis in Love and Kyrie Irving.
Nights like these, you remember that the Cavs really are a superteam. Love’s 39-point performance, and Kyrie Irving’s Eddie Money overtime takeover make that clear. The idea that LeBron would willingly sacrifice Love at the altar for an opportunity to unite with Carmelo Anthony makes sense on a personal level, but it’s hard for me to accept him seeing it as a net positive on the court, not after how well Love has ingratiated himself within the Cavs’ style of play. (LeBron told reporters that the Melo-for-Love rumor was “trash” after the game.) Iman Shumpert’s ankle sprain complicates things for the Cavs a bit; their wing depth is now nearly nonexistent. But if their win over the Wizards proves anything, it’s that the team has enough firepower as is to withstand most any team’s best performance of the season. They don’t have to look to the stars for an answer to LeBron’s anxiety. They have plenty where they’re at already.
The Wizards Are Who We Thought They Were
Chris Almeida: In Monday night’s overtime loss to Cleveland, the Wizards played the best basketball they’ve played all season, and it took a transcendent LeBron James, a defiant Kevin Love, and a determined Kyrie Irving to beat them.
Washington entered the home matchup with the Cavs riding a seven-game win streak, the franchise’s longest in 12 years. But five of those wins had come against losing teams. Aside from their home win against the Celtics in the Funeral Game, the Wizards’ recent form had not been tested by the teams that will likely be relevant in the upcoming postseason. But even in a loss, the Wizards passed a test: They belong.
This is a team heavily reliant on a six-man rotation of its starters and the rapidly improving second-year player Kelly Oubre Jr. One of the cornerstones of that rotation, Bradley Beal, had 41 points and showed balls of steel while hitting crucial jumpers down the stretch, but his talent on the scoring end has always been clear.
Beal’s eight assists don’t tell the full story of his role as a facilitator in this game. Leaguewide, John Wall lags only James Harden in assists, but he can’t be the team’s only playmaker. Beal’s 3.7 assists per game is the highest mark of his career, and if he can continue to emerge in that department, it will go a long way toward creating scoring opportunities for less dynamic frontcourt players like Otto Porter Jr. and Markieff Morris.
Porter was his usual efficient self against the Cavs. He scored 25 points on 11 shots and made five of his seven attempts from 3. Porter is having a career year. He has the NBA’s highest effective field goal percentage among players with at least 60 field goal attempts and 10 attempts from behind the arc. He’s also shooting a league-best .459 from deep among players with more than 100 attempts. Porter’s most evident issue during his early years in the league was confidence. It took time for him to develop the big-game conviction that he had during his All-American sophomore season at Georgetown, but now it seems like Porter can play his death-by-a-thousand-cuts brand of basketball against teams across the spectrum.
Morris and Marcin Gortat received scoring opportunities of every variety. Bruising buckets in the post, midrange jumpers, and uncontested lay-ins facilitated by Beal and Wall, who was his All-Star self with 22 points and 12 assists, were all effective in demoralizing the Cavs when they fixated too much on the backcourt stars.
Oubre was potentially the biggest overperformer for the Wizards, scoring 11 points, grabbing seven boards, twice his season average, and taking defensive possessions against LeBron. The Wizards didn’t have much more help, though. The only other Washington player to score off the bench was Jason Smith, who notched five points and ended Kay Felder’s career.
The Wizards played their churning, reliable genre of basketball as well as they have all season, and the good news is that it would have been good enough to win against almost any team, including the Cavs on another day. It took LeBron playing redline basketball and hitting the shot of the year to beat Washington, and even he can’t play his best every night.
The Wizards have flaws; their lack of depth is concerning and even after Ian Mahinmi returns, the miles will show in a seven-game series. But Monday night, the team showed that its six players will fight for every inch. Washington, without any big offseason acquisitions, has come a long way from its lottery finish last season. The same team that entered the year without a rudder is now trading body blows with the defending champions and staring down the Cavaliers with the same intensity that Gilbert Arenas and his Wizards had more than a decade ago. All this time later, the greatest player on earth is still on the court, but it’s clear that Washington, once again, is not afraid of him.