LeBron goes goat-to-G.O.A.T., Love defies rumors to win instant classic

The Wizards and Cavs each deserved to win Monday’s terrific contest. (AP)
The Wizards and Cavs each deserved to win Monday’s terrific contest. (AP)

After 15 years and countless big games, LeBron James has been at the center of virtually every kind of play, discussion, moment, and controversy that the NBA can offer. Like any all-time great, though, LeBron continues to surprise. And one brief sequence at the end of regulation in Monday night’s game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Washington Wizards qualifies as one of the quickest role reversals of his legendary career.

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With 12 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter of a terrific contest at the Verizon Center, Wizards forward Markieff Morris followed a missed lay-up from John Wall with an offensive rebound and putback to put the hosts up 118-117. The Cavaliers called their final timeout to set up a chance at reclaiming the lead, and LeBron appeared to give them one when he darted past the Wizards defense (with the aid of an uncalled travel) to create a wide-open lay-up. Somehow, though, he couldn’t finish it:

That baffling miss appeared to hand Washington the win. Wall extended the lead to three points with only three seconds left, and Cleveland did not have a timeout to advance the ball more a better look. In other words, they needed a miracle.

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Kevin Love, arguably the best long-range passer in the NBA, found James in the frontcourt. And then LeBron pulled off one of the most unbelievable shots of his career:

It’s possible to find fault with this play — maybe Bradley Beal should have fouled as LeBron took a step towards the sideline, LeBron probably didn’t call glass, etc. On a basic level, though, the best player in the world followed up one of the most shocking misses you’ll ever see with a game-tying fadeaway three-pointer off a 70-foot inbounds pass. Don’t struggle too hard to rationalize it. Just accept it for the amazing highlight it is.

The drama of one of the 2016-17 season’s best games hardly stopped there, although LeBron’s night ended soon after. He fouled out just 47 seconds into overtime, a turn of events that appeared to put the Wizards on their way to a win. Beal made two free throws to give his team the first four points of the extra period, and the Cavs were left to fight without their superstar on a night when he put up 32 efficient points (12-of-18 FG) and a career-high 17 assists.

The Cavs turned out to be just fine once again. The Wizards did not go away quietly, but Love, Kyle Korver, Kyrie Irving, and others made big plays down the stretch to come back and retake the lead. Irving had the eventual game-winner, a pull-up three-pointer with 35 seconds remaining that broke a 133-133 tie:

That shot — from the same spot where Kyrie won the 2017 NBA Finals for the Cavs — held up, but the Wizards nearly forced another overtime. Beal got a decent, though challenging, look from the top of the arc with four seconds on the clock, but he couldn’t stick it. Irving followed with two free throws to finish off an 11-point overtime and a fantastic 140-135 win for Cleveland.

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Yet Irving was arguably Cleveland’s worst key performer on the night — his big overtime only got him to 23 points on 8-of-24 shooting from the field. Rather, the biggest Cavs performance came from a player who had been in the headlines for very different reasons earlier in the day.

If Love was bothered by reports that LeBron wanted him traded for friend Carmelo Anthony, then he certainly didn’t let it get in his way on Monday night. Love devastated the Wizards throughout the game, scoring 39 points on efficient shooting numbers (11-of-17 FG, 6-of-10 3FG, 11-of-11 FT) with 12 rebounds in 42 minutes. This performance showcased the best of Love — he stretched the defense, initiated contact inside, hit the glass, and fired a pinpoint pass in the final seconds of regulation when anything less would have led to a loss. If that’s not enough, he also triggered flashbacks to his title-winning stop of Stephen Curry by effectively covering Beal and Wall on some key OT possessions.

LeBron vehemently denied the Love-Melo trade rumors after the game, but Love’s showing itself was the best argument against such a deal. When he’s at his best, he offers a collection of skills that few other players in the NBA can match. As Love grows increasingly comfortable as the Cavs’ third option, it seems less probable that anyone in the organization would want to go to the trouble of integrating another star into their system. Why take the risk if it’s already working well?

If anyone with the Cavs is worried, it could be because their top challengers in the Eastern Conference look set to provide more resistance on the path to a not-quite-inevitable matchup with the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals. After Monday’s contest, the Wizards look like a necessary inclusion in that group.

Washington impressed mightily in defeat, shooting 50.5 percent from the field and matching nearly every big play from Cleveland for 53 minutes. The star backcourt of Wall and Beal justified all talk of their substantial improvement this season. Wall posted 22 points and 12 assists, but it was Beal who demanded the most attention. He finished one point shy of his career high with 41 (16-of-28 FG) and added eight assists, often appearing unguardable.

Yet the Wizards looked strong in part because they didn’t have to depend on Wall and Beal for everything. Otto Porter Jr., Marcin Gortat, Markieff Morris, and Kelly Oubre Jr. all scored in double figures and made plays when it mattered. If a few more bounces had gone their way, the Wizards would be the story of the night. They stayed with an elite team playing near its best and certainly rose to the occasion for what Wall said was the biggest regular season game of his career.

However, Washington learned the hard way that Cleveland does not go down easily. The result was one of the most exciting games of the regular season, as well as a reminder that the Cavs remain clear favorites in the East. Even a gift of a missed lay-up can’t stop them from finding a (totally unexpected) way to win.

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Eric Freeman is a writer for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter!

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