Whether LeBron James was playing with a bit of extra motivation stemming from comments made by John Wall and Bradley Beal or not, what he did at Capital One Arena on Friday night amounted to a masterpiece from a man who will go down as one of the greatest players in the history of basketball.
James used a steady pour of postup fadeaways and relentless drives to the rim to pile up 57 points against the Wizards, the second-most in his career. His highest scoring game ever was 61 points back in 2014, yet he shot for a higher percentage (67.6%) this time. The only thing that stopped him from scoring more was the game clock because the Wizards, despite exhausting all options, had no answers.
Some of the talk postgame stemmed from what Wall and Beal had said that afternoon on ESPN, essentially that they were the best team in the East and that the Cavaliers tanked at the end of last season to avoid them in the playoffs. That conversation was started by Beal back in May when he told NBC Sports Washington's Chris Miller that the Cavs "didn't want to see" them in the conference finals.
LeBron didn't go there afterwards, but perhaps he didn't need to. He had made his point and had the last laugh by doing and saying other things. On the Wizards' defensive strategy of mostly guarding him one-on-one with a revolving door of defenders, LeBron quipped:
"I guess they figured at some point I'd miss. And I did. I missed 11 shots."
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LeBron hit a career-high 23 field goals on 34 attempts. He grabbed 11 rebounds, dished seven assists and added three steals and two blocks. According to Basketball Reference's game score, it was the best game of LeBron's career and the eighth-best game in the history of the stat, dating back to 1983-84.
It was a complete performance, a thorough dismantling of a Wizards team that could only tip their caps in respect afterwards.
"We tried everything," Wizards head coach Scott Brooks said. "Tonight, nothing that we did, and we did a lot of things, was going to work. The guy was on fire. That's what happens certain nights with great players."
"I guess he must just love playing in D.C.," Wall said after referencing LeBron's shot to force overtime last February.
The reaction from the Wizards after getting bulldozed by LeBron also featured some defiance. Yeah, they did some talking. But they don't plan to stop and certainly aren't discouraged by what happened in their 130-122 loss.
The Wizards know they have to knock out the Cavaliers come playoff time to achieve their goals. And the only way to do that is to get another crack at them.
"Probably," Beal said when asked if LeBron was motivated by his words. "But at the end of the day I still stand on what I say and with my teammates... Hopefully down the line we'll see him again and hopefully in a seven-game series. I don't know if he can do that [every game]."
Markieff Morris replied "hell yeah" when asked if he could help stop LeBron better next time, as Morris had just returned from a six-week absence due to injury.
The Wizards will get another chance to play the Cavaliers, of course. They play three more times in the regular season and as two of the best teams in the East, could very well meet in the playoffs.
When they do meet again, the Wizards may have more to say. That is their style, to be outwardly confident and then try to back it up. They just couldn't do that on Friday night.
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