And not just because the previous time that these two teams met, the Wizards handed the Cavs their only home loss of the season and led by as many as 22 in a 97-85 drubbing.
“It was in the front of our mind,” LeBron James said after it was his Cavs that built an advantage that swelled to 18 points this time around en route to a 121-115 victory. “We knew what they did to us, and we just wanted to try to get some get back.”
That wasn’t the only vengeance they were thinking about. Kyrie Irving insisted after the game “there’s no beef or anything that’s going on” between himself and fellow former No. 1 pick John Wall. Wall had told CSNmidatlantic.com last month “it’s a joke” that Irving was No. 2 among all Eastern Conference guards in the first All-Star balloting returns after playing in only two games, while Wall was fifth, trailing Irving by nearly 35,000 votes. Not all of Irving’s teammates were so even-keeled about Wall’s comments.
“He’s probably the best 1-on-1 player in our game,” Cavs guard J.R. Smith said of Irving afterward. “I don’t think there’s any question who the real All-Star is.”
Irving scored 32 points on 14-for-22 shooting with five rebounds, three assists, two steals and a block in a season-high 35 minutes. His fourth-quarter output alone -- 19 points, including a personal 10-0 run to break the game open after Washington tied it 95-95 -- would have eclipsed Wall’s game total of 20 points on 8-for-19 shooting, if not for Wall scoring eight points in the final 1:01 with the outcome already all but decided.
Wall, who was named the East’s player of the month for December, did have 12 assists to far surpass Irving’s dish total, though he also had seven turnovers to Irving’s four.
Playing in just his seventh game back after a 6½-month layoff following surgery to repair a fractured left kneecap, Irving's night was so mesmerizing that James’ 34 points -- including a blistering stretch to start the second half, when he hit four 3-pointers in the first three minutes -- became an afterthought. It was a showing so splendid that Cavs coach David Blatt, who tried to temper expectations after Irving’s previous best game (25 points and eight assists on Monday against Toronto), even had to admit, “[He will] still have days when he’s better and days when he’s going to have some signs that he was out. ... But it sure didn’t look like that tonight.”
The promise of things to come for Irving seemed so assured that a spoof video the Wizards ran during a timeout in the second quarter -- with actors in Cavs jerseys at the game telling the camera that Wall, not Irving, was more deserving of being an All-Star -- wasn’t just corny, it was sad.
James, who hinted after the Raptors game that an MVP trophy could be in Irving’s future, continued Wednesday to change the conversation around the fifth-year guard. It isn’t about Irving’s All-Star credentials, James argued. That’s a given in James’ eyes. The real debate is whether Irving is the top player at his position in the entire league -- yes, including Stephen Curry.
“At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how many games Kyrie played. He’s an All-Star player,” James said. “That’s not a question. He’s, if not the best, one or two best point guards in our league, along with Steph. So, I mean, that’s not even a question. And he continues to just show why he’s that. But I think, and I’m going to continue to harp on it, he’s much more than just an All-Star. He’s much better than that. I think he’s 23 years old.
"He hasn’t even scratched the surface yet.”
It’s a term that applies to the Cavs, as well.
They are rolling right now, winners of five straight, and yet it seems like there is still another level they’re destined to reach this season. As sharp as they looked against Washington, they still had only 16 assists on 48 baskets, as James and Irving did most of their damage in isolation sets. As much as it was an all-in type of effort, with Smith chipping in 25 points on 10-for-16 shooting, it was still an off night for Tristan Thompson as he grabbed a season-low three rebounds. It was still a weak night for the Cavs’ bolstered bench, which was outscored 38-10. And it was an underwhelming performance from Kevin Love, who finished with just eight points and nine boards and was benched for the entire fourth quarter for the second time this season.
Irving’s potential -- so titillating, so enticing -- mirrors his team’s.
“For me," Irving said, "it’s about -- like I said and I’ll continue to say -- progressing every single game."