WASHINGTON — LeBron James was not about to let teammate Kevin Love's flubbed attempt at a driving, two-handed dunk — the basketball smacked off the front of the rim — happen without some ribbing.
Especially not when James set aside first-half foul trouble to finish with 28 points in only 25 minutes Friday night, helping the surging Cleveland Cavaliers overwhelm the Washington Wizards 127-89 in a possible Eastern Conference playoff preview.
"I said something to him at halftime. Locker-room talk," James said with a smile, thinking about Love and his missed slam, about the only thing that went wrong for the Cavs on a night they handed the Wizards their biggest loss of the season.
"He laughed it off," James added. "We all laughed it off."
Easy to do on an evening like this.
Cleveland led by as many as 22 points before halftime and as many as 40 after to win for the 15th time in its past 17 games.
"I'm the leader of this team and I set the tempo. I set the pace," James said. "I set the aggressiveness and I just wanted the guys to follow me."
After the Wizards briefly made things interesting by pulling within 12 early in the third quarter, James hit consecutive 3-points to make things comfortable for the visitors.
"That," said John Wall, the All-Star point guard who had 18 points and nine assists for Washington, "was kind of devastating."
The Cavaliers held the Wizards to 1-of-16 shooting on 3s while going 14 for 33 themselves and produced the most points by a Washington opponent in a first quarter (35) and first half (65).
"They came to send a message, no question. Absolutely. That's what good teams do," Wizards coach Randy Wittman said about the Cavaliers. "That's where we've got to get."
Washington is 14-16 over its last 30 games, following a 19-6 start that prompted talk about whether the club was ready to be a real factor in the East.
Entering the first game for both teams after the All-Star break, the Wizards were fourth in the conference standings, and the Cavaliers were fifth. They now swap spots. If the clubs were to stay seeded 4-5 the rest of the way, they would meet in the first round of the playoffs.
And if Friday was any indication, the Wizards probably ought to hope that doesn't happen — even if they were without starting shooting guard Bradley Beal (right leg injury) and reserve forward Kevin Seraphin (flu-like symptoms) from the tipoff, then had starting forward Nene leave in the third quarter because of cramps.
Fact is, this one was not much of a contest at all.
Coming out of the All-Star break, Cavs coach David Blatt said, "I saw a rejuvenated group, a team that was very, very focused — cognizant of what's ahead of us in these last, now, 26 games. And it did us well."
Blatt pointed to Cleveland's 91-78 loss at Washington in November as an example of how much progress his team has made.
"What a difference a few months make," Blatt said. "We definitely were not the together unit that we are now."
JR AT MSG
Cleveland's J.R. Smith will get to play at his old stompin' grounds Sunday when the Cavs are at Madison Square Garden; he was traded by the Knicks last month.
Carmelo Anthony is "hurt, so it takes away from it a little bit," Smith said. "It's going to be fun to be playing in front of the home crowd a little bit."
Beal missed his fourth consecutive game, and Wittman said "things are progressing really good" for the third-year guard. Wittman added that doctors gave Beal the go-ahead to "do some shooting and running and stuff."
Cavaliers: Blatt said C Anderson Varejao, who had season-ending surgery on his torn left Achilles tendon in December, is "making great progress. He's out of the boot. He's even walking, weight-bearing, on the leg."
Wizards: G Ramon Sessions, acquired Thursday from Sacramento, made his Wizards debut in the fourth quarter.
Cavaliers: At the Knicks on Sunday.
Wizards: At the Pistons on Sunday.
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