Tuesday night was an evening full of unveiling. Opening Night in the NBA typically comes equipped with plenty of pomp and circumstance. The Cleveland Cavaliers took the typical talking points and turned the dial up to 100: new carpet lacing the entire lower bowl, a new center court design featuring a giant Cavaliers’ “C”, a new, highly energizing player introduction video featuring Cleveland’s own Machine Gun Kelly, brand new wine-colored blazers sported by the ownership team, a starting lineup comprised of their newest lottery selection and — perhaps the most important — a sneak preview of an offense that funnels through the post.
“They showed a lot of heart and showed a lot of guts,” said head coach Byron Scott of his team which has a starting five toting an average age just over 23 years. “The last few days of practice and scrimmages we’ve had has been like (tonight)…somebody will get up big and the other team comes back. As much as you try to emulate game time in your practice, that really came up tonight. Our guys came in and were used to the situation the last few weeks of doing it in practice.”
Among the new arrivals were the on-court surprises of rookie shooting guard Dion Waiters who had a very efficient and energetic night to go with his 17 points. Last season’s fourth-overall selection would not be outdone as Tristan Thompson added 12 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, and a steal. Both of these performances went in perfect lockstep with the play of Kyrie Irving and Anderson Varejao — not necessarily a new item, but one that was gladly received as it had been a considerable amount of time since both men were 100 percent healthy and on the floor together. It would be Irving’s game-high 29 points and Varejao’s near triple-double complete with a career-high 23 rebounds — 12 on the offensive side alone, tying the franchise record held by Michael Cage and Zydrunas Ilgauskas — which allowed the Cavaliers to make all of the new additions worthwhile, if only for one night.
Shortly after the entire Cavaliers team was introduced, it was Irving who took to center court to welcome the fans back for another season of basketball in the city of Cleveland, speaking in a grateful tone about the continued support of a young and rebuilding franchise. Not long thereafter, a pair of Cleveland Browns rookies — quarterback Brandon Weeden and running back Trent Richardson — took to their seats right behind the Cavaliers’ bench, drawing the expected reaction once their faces would later grace The Q Tube. In between was an up-and-down game that featured a double-digit lead followed by a fourth quarter defecit with just eight minutes to go.
Scott paced, arms fully crossed, as his double-digit lead would slowly slip away, his second unit being outplayed by that of the Wizards — a sequence that featured multiple missed jump shots by Donald Sloan, Daniel Gibson and Tyler Zeller; two turnovers by CJ Miles and one by Luke Walton — his second-year point guard and reigning Rookie of the Year in Irving sat in his seat on the bench, patted his coach on the thigh and said, “Don’t worry, I got this.”
After a Waiters three-pointer gave the Cavaliers a one-point lead, it was Irving who took over, grabbing multiple key rebounds, executing a driving lay-in, and facilitating what ended up being one of the top plays of the night — a spin move at the top of the key, finding Anderson Varejao, leading to a Tristan Thompson slam and 28,000 fans rising to their feet.
“We picked up the energy when we got back in,” said Irving of the starting five who finished the contest. We made smart plays down the stretch and we executed.”
“It was great, especially when we were down and came back,” said the rookie Waiters. “It was awesome. The fans definitely helped hype us up even more tonight.”
The Varejao-to-Thompson assists was merely one of nine amassed by the Brazilian big man on the evening, allowing both Irving and Waiters to play off of the ball and create shots rather than relying on isolation. The Cavaliers center was as active as ever, getting in on every play despite having to leave the floor momentarily after a wayward elbow caught him in the neck and jaw during the first quarter. Following the contest, admitting to having a bit of a headache, Varejao smiled when saying that he was not even aware of his statistical line until it was very late in the game, but was happy as this new-look offense will be something that Cavalier fans can grow to expect over the coming months — after all, the Princeton offense is predicated upon ball movement stemming from the post. Ball movement galore — even Thompson, a player who had an assist rate 3.3 percent last season, is getting in on the fun.
Also in on the fun is the entire city of Cleveland who gets to not only soak in the latest win for Weeden, Richardson and the Browns, but an opening night victory for an up-and-coming Cavalier team that is, in all honestly, not expected to do all that much this season. It was only one game in a sea of 82, but as the winter months roll in, its easy to see why all 20,562 fans in Quicken Loans Arena were excited to see what waited inside of the walls. It’s safe to say that everyone in attendance left a happy customer.
The happiest of them all: Byron Scott.
(Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer)
- Including the aforementioned Machine Gun Kelly as well as a slew of Cleveland Browns players like Brandon Weeden, Trent Richardson, Phil Taylor, Frostee Rucker and Joe Haden [↩]