"I've been in some big (regular season) games before, but I don't think one is bigger than this one." That's what John Wall said on Sunday, a day before his streaking Washington Wizards, winners of 17 straight home games, were set to take on the Cleveland Cavaliers in D.C. The parenthetical is essential, there; foisting too much importance on mid-winter matchups is one of the quickest routes to losing respect in the NBA. Even if they don't mean everything, though, February meetings can hold plenty of intensity and drama, and what's more, that intensity and drama can be of an altogether different strain than the kind found in May and June, when the sport's demigods assert or reassert their places. Games in the middle of the schedule tend to be more cooperative affairs, giving greater space to secondary figures. And Wall was right about Monday's contest; it turned out to be as big as February games get.
The Cavaliers won in overtime, 140-135, a score that somehow undersells how it came about. Though the individual stats astound, they too don't quite capture things. LeBron James put up 32 points, 7 rebounds, and a career-high 17 assists. Bradley Beal went for 41; Otto Porter, this season's leader in three-point percentage, made five of his seven attempts from behind the arc and scored 25. Kevin Love poured in 39 on 11-17 shooting. John Wall zoom-zoomed his way to 22 and 12.
It was a night for big numbers, but the real thrill of the game was non-statistical. The Wizards played with purpose, aiming for a statement win to cap a pleasing first half of the season, and as rumors of Love's trade availability circulated, the Cavaliers met their challengers' tempo in a show of apparent solidarity. The ball seemed not to stop moving over the full 53 minutes. Wall caught outlet passes at full sprint and blazed at the Cleveland defense, threading passes to big men stationed at the rim or whipping the ball across the court to his marksmen. (Look at that a drop-off to Marcin Gortat below!) James ran pick-and-rolls that looked like avalanches and pulled up for assured threes. Kevin Harlan, calling the game for TNT, reached deep into his bag of honorifics; the players advanced from sharpshooters to assassins to flamethrowers as the lead swung back and forth.
If this isn't your first stop on the internet in the past 12 or so hours, you already know how the game ended. With the Cavs down three with seconds remaining, Love threw one of his famous full-court passes—when's the last time you thought about those?—to James, who dribbled once, turned, and banked in his sixth triple of the game with 0.3 left on the clock. This was moments after he took about sixteen steps before biffing an easy layup. When James fouled out early in overtime—when's the last time you saw that?—Kyrie Irving took over, scoring 11 points in the extra period in the expected way: luminescent dribbling displays leading to pull-ups from wherever he damn pleased.
If this game had happened in the Eastern Conference Finals, we'd be having big-L Legacy discussions this morning. Where does this rank among LeBron's biggest moments? Who won the game: LeBron or Kyrie? Is Wall clutch? It didn't, though. It happened in the drowsy weeks leading up to the All-Star break, and thank goodness for that, because nobody involved in last night's thriller deserves anything less than our appreciation, for turning a random Monday meeting into pure spectacle.