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Wizards’ close loss vs. Cavs validates them as Eastern Conference contender

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

The Wizards’ loss to the Cavaliers Monday night wasn’t about them trying to win their 18th straight home game. It wasn’t about them trying to inch their way into the race for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. And it definitely wasn’t about them settling old scores with the Cavaliers, as close to 10 years have passed since their three playoff meetings.

Washington’s matchup last night with Cleveland was about one thing, and one thing only: Confirmation.

If you have been following along with the Wizards for the last couple months, it is obvious that they have turned a corner. A 2-and-8 start turned into them being 10 games over .500 by their 50th game, so saying that they have improved would be an understatement. What was still unclear, however, was what exactly their hot streak meant.

At first, it was about working their way into the playoff picture; check. Then it turned into them trying to move over .500; double check. Eventually it started to materialize into their chase for at least one round of postseason home court advantage; tentative third check at the moment. And now, could it be, that they have turned into a contender? …This box will remain empty for the time being.

Going back to my original point, this game affirms that Washington is in fact a dangerous team, albeit maybe not a championship contender quite yet. They are still a superstar – or three – away from posing any sort of a threat to the Warriors, but as presently constructed, they at least stand a chance to make a run to the Eastern Conference Finals.

In John Wall’s appearance on Inside the NBA last week, he was asked about the teams’ goals for the season and he more or less said just that. Wall wants to win at least two playoff series’ this year; building on the first round victories he led the Wizards to in 2014 and 2015.

No, he isn’t expecting to win Washington their first ring since 1978. But he does realize that his team is in a position to do something special, and go further than any other franchise in this area has gone in a very long time.

Despite the current play of the Wizards, it is still far from a given that they can make it as far as Wall wants and expects them to. But focusing on the lofty goals he has set is completely missing the point. It’s not about whether or not they will advance that far, or even if they are putting themselves in the best position to make a run (although the bench could use some work, Ernie). It comes down to the fact that every Wizards fans best case scenario they could have dreamed up for the team this season is becoming more and more realistic. Our most optimistic hopes for the club have been vindicated as more than just a fantasy.

Now all of this does make it seem like I am glossing over the fact that Washington did lose the game. And I am not. The Wizards lost by five to the reigning NBA champions in overtime, even after one of the top five players the league has ever seen fouled out. I could mention that Markieff Morris fouled out on Washington’s end, but I already referred to LeBron as one of the better players in NBA history so probably best to not act like I’m comparing the impacts of the two for their respective teams.

Putting the disqualifications aside, a loss is a loss. But saying that all defeats are created equal after a game like that makes you one of two things: Either you’re (one) a Cavs’ fan, or (two) a liar.

I don’t want to sit here and say that people reading this are liars, or worse, say they are Cleveland fans, so let’s just all agree that some losses are not quite as bad. The Wizards have made the second round of the playoffs twice in the last three seasons, but before that had advanced past the first round just two times since the 1970’s. So, yes, losing to the defending champs in overtime is, dare I say, representative of one of the most sacrilegious sayings in all of sports: a moral victory.

The Wizards walked out of the phone booth Monday night knowing a couple things; one is that they lost, and the other is that they ACTUALLY COULD HAVE WON. This obviously is not saying much since most professional sports teams probably feel this way after close defeats, but it is notable when considering it in a greater context. It’s not just that they could have beaten Cleveland Monday night, it’s that they are good enough to beat the Cavaliers PERIOD.

Best game of the regular season or not (it was the best game of the regular season), the matchup will end up being another notch in the Cavs win column and the 21st defeat of Washington’s season. A week from now, a month from now, and beyond that as the NBA calendar moves towards the end of the regular season, the Wizards will have many more important games against other formidable opponents.

But none of those games will be as important, nor mean as much, as Washington’s moral victory (yes, that’s right, I said it again) against the Cavs’ Monday night. I can throw around Otto Porter’s effective field goal percentage, Bradley Beal’s career-best numbers, or John Wall’s MVP case, but no stat can quantify the changing of the guard taking place in Washington. Something is just different in DC, and the Wizards confirmed that against the reigning NBA champions, regardless of the final score.