WASHINGTON -- John Wall surveyed the Cavs defense from the top of the key, took a screen from Marcin Gortat and calmly hit an 18 foot jumper from the right elbow to give the Wizards a 70-56 lead midway through the third. LeBron James, like most Cavaliers defenders on the night, made no effort to go over the screen. After Wall's shot went in, the Cavaliers' star made an indifferent hand gesture, as if to say, "What can you do?"
The indifference to Wall's jumper was evident throughout the night. The Cavaliers consistently went under screens and allowed Wall space to get quality looks. Time and time again, Wall made them pay.
Part of this may have been lazy defense by Cavaliers defenders, but a large part of it certainly was by design.
"We sort of, at least part of the time, we got him doing what we wanted him to do," said Cavaliers coach David Blatt after acknowledging Wall's ability. "But he made the plays, and those are the percentages you play sometimes."
In the most hyped regular season game of his career, Wall showed off a whole panoply of qualities he has been developing up to his fifth season in Washington. Defense. Passing. Leadership. But above all, he showed his ability to punish defenses that sleep on his shooting ability.
Nowhere was this more evident than the third quarter. As they had against Dallas, the Wizards started off sluggishly, compelling Randy Wittman to call an early timeout. While little was said, the team responded.
Well, Wall responded. He had 17 points on 7-9 shooting in the quarter, all paired with disruptive defense that included two steals against a Cavaliers offense that could never really get going.
Garrett Temple has seen Wall's progression firsthand over his three seasons with club. To him, this night on the big stage showed the national audience what the Wizards already know. This John Wall is a vastly superior player to the one crystallized in the national narrative formed several years ago. When Wall's shot is going, defenses are presented with an impossible dilemma:
"They can't go under," Temple told Bullets Forever. "Usually they want to go under, so he can't get in the lane and find people. But when he's hitting that jump shot, you have to pick your poison. Either he's going to knock it down, or you have to over and he's going to make plays for everybody else. His ability to hit that jump shot has obviously improved his game and made the offense a lot more efficient."
Wall's shooting was just one element that has transformed Wall from the soft-spoken youngster to the unquestioned leader of the franchise.
"When I first got here, he was kind of shy to talk to, didn't want to step on anyone's toes," Temple said. "In that players only meeting we had last year, when we started off 2-7, guys told him, 'This is your team. We want you to run it.' Since then, he's been a great vocal leader."
Paul Pierce seconded Temple's comments on Wall.
"He's our leader, man," Pierce said. "He's asked to carry a big load for this ball club. He's an All-Star. He's going to do the scoring, he's going to do the assists, he's going to be a defender. That is why you are going to see a lot of his jerseys in the stands."
And Wall jerseys were present aplenty in the packed Verizon Center. As Temple happily noted, Washingtonians finally greeted LeBron with red jerseys instead of a red carpet:
"They were booing Lebron. Last year or two years ago, when he was in Miami, you'd hear more cheers."
The cheers tonight were reserved for the home squad and particularly for their superstar point guard. In a game featuring three of the biggest stars in the sport, it was Wall who shined the brightest before a packed crowd that included NBA commissioner Adam Silver.
Despite an 11:45 flight to Milwaukee, Wall seemed in no rush to leave as he talked to the reporters post game. Asked about the temptation to get into one on one battles against Kyrie Irving, with whom he has often been compared, Wall demurred.
"I'm not a one-on-one guy," he said. "I win games by playing it the team way: getting open shots for my teammates, moving the ball, getting the hockey assists. That's how I win games. Those one-on-one matches, some people look at it by numbers. I look at it by filling the stat sheet and coming out with the 'W'."
It's this attitude and Wall's stellar play that has this Washington team off to its best start in 40 years. It's the John Wall that Wizards fans have watched grow from a raw, but talent rookie to an All-Star over five season.
Perhaps with this nationally-televised performance in the midst of all this Cavaliers and Lebron hype, the rest of America will notice too.