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Despite defeat, Wizards find new fire and motivation in renewed rivalry with Cavaliers

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NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Washington Wizards Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

WASHINGTON - John Wall said this was the biggest regular season game he’d have played in his life. Riding the wave of a 17 game win streak with the world champion Cleveland Cavaliers coming into town, the Wizards had a massive challenge in front of them. Wall was right — this game was huge.

A rivalry that was held dormant for so many years was officially renewed. For the first time in nearly a decade, both the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Washington Wizards had relevance in the basketball realm for the first time. For the first time in a long time, one of these games mattered. And both teams played like it did.

But the Wizards fell short. They couldn’t pull out a win against LeBron James and company once again despite multiple instances in the waning moments of the game where it seemed like they should have.

They failed, but this loss didn’t exactly feel like failure. After the game, Scott Brooks said the Wizards should not hang their heads after this defeat.

“I like the competitive spirit that they showed that tonight,” Brooks said. “[The Cavaliers] didn’t win a championship being down 3-1 for nothing. They have the heart of a champion and we were right there with them.”

The Wizards did compete and could have come out on top. They took the lead at several points in the final moments of the game, only to be foiled by four tough triples from James in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter, including an extremely difficult turnaround three off the glass just inches away from the sideline that would have made Christian Laettner swoon.

It took that, plus overtime heroics from Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson to ultimately put the Wizards away on a night where Bradley Beal scored 41 points with 8 assists, Wall notched another 20-10 double-double, and Otto Porter piled on another 25 points while making 5-7 from beyond the arc.

The Cavs scored 140 points and needed every single one to win this game. The ball had to bounce the Wizards’ way just one more time to pull this one out. What if James just shuffled an inch or two more out beyond the arc on his shot that forced overtime? What if Otto Porter had gotten his pass a couple inches higher on the ensuing possession to set up Wall for an alley-opp to win the game? What if Markieff Morris had not picked up two quick fouls in the first quarter? This game is filled with these what-if scenarios for Washington.

But the bottom line is that they lost. They didn’t do enough. And they’ve got to do better moving forward.

“We ain’t for the sympathy,” Markieff Morris said. “We don’t want no pats on the back or nothing. It was a good game. Move on.”

There were multiple instances, Morris said, where “of course I thought we was going to win.” In overtime, the Wizards held a five point lead after James fouled out. Even though Morris himself fouled out shortly after, he said he thought the game was in hand. But they didn’t have enough momentum to carry them forward.

Beal said the game had a playoff atmosphere — something the Verizon Center has not seen for nearly two calendar years. And something they have not experienced against the Cavaliers in a decade. But after this one, easily the best game of the year so far, the flame has rekindled.

“Everybody is pissed,” Beal said. “We’re definitely going to see them down the line....This was more of a playoff game than anything. That was definitely a test and a battle for us. We did a tremendous job handling it.”

Whether they see the Cavs down the line to renew their battle remains to be seen, but one thing is for certain: The Wizards finally have the eye of the league. And that includes the face of the league in James.

“Y’all playing a hell of some basketball right now,” Wall said James told him after the game. “They respect us.”

With that being said, though, there are no moral victories here anymore. And Morris refuses to accept any.

“I’m all about wins and losses. We lost. Move on. We’ve got to. We play Wednesday,” Morris said. “We’ve got more to accomplish. The 17-game winning streak happened while we were turning the corner. We might start another streak. It’s one of those things, we’re happy about it. But we’ve still got 40-something games before the playoffs. We’re focused on that now.”