The first meeting between John Wall and Kyrie Irving always has been worth circling on any NBA calendar. But ever since Wall told CSNmidatlantic.com that he thought it was "a joke" that he trailed him in All-Star fan voting, their matchup took on heightened importance.
"It’s always a special battle between us two. Ever since he came in the league it’s always going back and forth. Sometimes I’ll be injured, he won’t play," Wall said after Tuesday's practice. "He’ll give you a lot of tough matchup problems. He can shoot the ball very well, has handles, finishes at the basket. He does a lot of different things. That’s what you get up for. You try not to force it into a one-on-one battle and just play the right way."
When the Wizards (15-17) handed the Cavs (23-9) what is still their only home loss, Irving had yet to play because of a knee injury he'd sustained in last season's playoffs.
Still, the Wizards were short-handed, too, in the 97-85 victory on Dec. 1. They had to play without Nene, Gary Neal and Drew Gooden so coach Randy Wittman went to a lineup of Wall, Bradley Beal, Garrett Temple, Otto Porter and Jared Dudley. They went on a 9-0 run, Wall had his season high of 35 points and LeBron James had nine turnovers.
With Irving and Iman Shumpert back from injury, however, the Cavs won't be the same. In six games, Irving is averaging 15 points and 4.2 assists. Shumpert has played 10 games (6.5 points) but gives them another body to throw at Wall.
Beal (leg) has been out almost a month and is probably a few more weeks from returning at the earliest. If Porter and Temple aren't able to drain their open looks, it'll be easier to bottle up Wall. Neal (thigh) and Nene (calf) could return.
"They’re a totally different team offensively. With Kyrie coming back and being aggressive, you got Kevin Love and those guys. We had opportunities. LeBron did have a lot of turnovers, Kevin Love wasn’t making shots and J.R. (Smith) wasn’t making shots," said Wall, who ran circles around Matthew Dellavedova and eventually became the East's Player of the Month for December. "They got a flow to the offense and guys are making shots. We’ll probably see different adjustments defensively towards me but that game we moved the ball very well and played team defense the way we wanted to and that’s the reason why we won."
Two seasons ago when Wall first was selected as an All-Star, he was Irving's backup though he had a better season. Last year, Wall was voted a starter for the first time but was overshadowed by Irving when he was selected by media to All-NBA third team. It's slights like these that he uses as motivation to play better, particularly on the defensive end, where Wall can be a much more effective player than Irving.
"They going to come with the same kind of mindset, upset that they lost to us at home," Wall said. "Now that they’re full-force, they’re going to be a tough team. We know what we’re going up against. We know what we have to do."