- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 21, 2018

LeBron James made the Wizards pay. After Bradley Beal and John Wall accused Cleveland of wanting to avoid Washington in the playoffs, the Cavaliers star dropped 57 points on the Wizards in a November win.

A month later, James racked up a triple-double in a 106-99 win at Capital One Arena.

Each game was a reminder of how dominant James, the NBA’s best player, can still be.

Now returning from a week-long All-Star break, the Wizards have to face James again Thursday in a nationally televised (8 p.m., TNT) rematch in Cleveland.

Except for their star, though, this Cavaliers team has undergone a wholesale makeover.

The game in Cleveland also marks the beginning of a stacked stretch of five games in seven nights for the Wizards.

“Definitely the schedule gets tougher,” coach Scott Brooks said. “We have a lot of good teams coming up. … We still want to be a better team when John comes back.”

Entering the break, the Wizards were finding a rhythm without Wall, who continues to recover from a knee scope. During Wall’s latest absence, Washington has gone 7-2 by creating offense with a pass-first mentality.

But Cleveland has gone through an even bigger adjustment. Chemistry problems on and off the court with the previous roster forced general manager Koby Altman to retool the team at the trade deadline — part of Cleveland’s effort to save the season and ± maybe — convince James, a potential free agent, to stay in town this summer.

They got rid of Isaiah Thomas, Dwyane Wade, Jae Crowder and three others for four players: point guard George Hill, guards Rodney Hood and Jordan Clarkson and forward Larry Nance Jr.

Each piece was acquired to help ease the burden on James before the playoffs. They also make Cleveland more dynamic and younger.

“Defensively, I think they got a lot better,” Wizards guard Tomas Satoransky said. “So it’s going to be totally different games than you would expect when they had the old team. We really have to get ready for that.”

The Wizards, too, have had their share of swings during the season. If they struggle in this next stretch, they could find themselves fighting for a playoff spot.

Besides a home matchup with the Charlotte Hornets on Friday, the Wizards are entering the murderer’s row portion of their schedule: 14 of their next 15 games are against teams currently headed for the playoffs.

And keep in mind, Wall isn’t expected to return until mid-March.

Brooks, though, pointed out how the Wizards’ record is “basically identical” to last season’s. Through 57 games, Washington is 33-24, compared to 34-23 last year.

Given the Wizards’ injuries this season, Brooks said he was satisfied with the results.

“I like how we’re playing,” Brooks said. “I like where we are right now. We’re definitely about to embark on the toughest part of the schedule, so we’re going to have to play good basketball for us to be in the same position.”

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