The Verizon Center on a night in the first week of February is not where you expect to witness what an NBA lifer would afterwards describe as "an instant classic." It's the home of the Wizards, an upstart team still trying to find out how good they are. They knew Monday offered an opportunity to measure up against the NBA's best in the defending-champion Cavaliers. But not even they could have guessed what the matchup ultimately delivered.
Playing in front of a sold out crowd and a national TV audience, the Wizards and Cavaliers took turns dazzling the basketball world. All of the attention was on them and they responded with a 53-minute war of wills that ended up a 140-135 Cavaliers victory capped off by superstars making superstar plays.
LeBron James set a career-high with 17 assists and sent the game to overtime with a last-second, fadeaway heave from three that banked in off the glass. John Wall had 22 points and 12 assists and made big shots down the stretch.
Bradley Beal scored 10 points in the fourth quarter, including two timely threes, and five points in overtime. Kyrie Irving scored 11 points in overtime after LeBron fouled out, including a swished three-pointer with 35 seconds remaining to essentially put the Wizards down for good. Kevin Love dropped 39 points.
Both teams set season-highs in scoring. The stars were out and they delivered in key moments time and time again.
“It was an instant classic—a great basketball game by two really good teams," head coach Scott Brooks said.
"It is probably one of the best games of the year," point guard John Wall said.
It's hard to compare what transpired on Monday night to playoff games of Wizards' past. It doesn't measure up in craziness to Gilbert Arenas' buzzer-beater to sink the Bulls in the 2005 postseason. It certainly falls short of Paul Pierce's "I called game" moment, or his would-be buzzer-beater that ended their season in the 2015 playoffs.
But Monday night was one that may be remembered for a long time, for as long as an NBA regular season game can be recalled. It stacks up with any of the wildest regular season games in Wizards' history - from Michael Ruffin literally throwing the game away to the Raptors, to anything Arenas or Michael Jordan did in town.
The moment that will stand out is LeBron's miracle shot. The Wizards were up 120-117 with 3.4 seconds left after Wall sank two free throws. Kevin Love threw the in-bound pass from the other end of the court, a 60-foot toss that LeBron caught near the Wizards' bench. He turned, shot it over Beal, off the glass and in.
“Have to chalk it up to the basketball gods. He's the greatest player in the league, so he's going to hit stuff like that," forward Kelly Oubre, Jr. said.
"James [hit] an amazing shot, a fall-away three off the board and I didn’t think I heard him call it," Brooks joked.
LeBron may have gotten a little lucky on that one, but there is no taking away from what Irving did to cement the victory. Also with Beal guarding him, Irving pulled up off the dribble and drained a three from almost the same exact spot 26 feet out where he hit his famous shot against the Warriors in the Finals last summer. That put the Cavaliers up 136-133 with :35 seconds left and the Wizards couldn't answer.
How long a regular season game can stand the test of time is hard to predict. But this one, which snapped a 17-game home winning streak for the Wizards, may have the chops.