After three losing seasons in Cleveland, the Cavaliers are ready to usher in a new era. Quicken Loans Arena was electric on Wednesday night as the Cavs defeated the new-look Brooklyn Nets 98-94 in their home opener.
The two-hour drive from Dublin to Cleveland was an emotional rollercoaster for this writer as Cleveland media members were going back and forth with tweets about whether Andrew Bynum was going to play. Finally, it was determined that Bynum was listed as “active” with just over an hour to go before game time.
After hearing about Bynum sprinting full court before the Indiana Pacers preseason game and seeing his workouts first hand before the Philadelphia Sixers preseason game, I was growing more and more optimistic about him returning sooner rather than later. Being able to watch him play at the Q on opening night was still a bit surprising, though.
Bynum played for seven minutes and recorded three points, three rebounds and two blocks. Beyond the box score is the effect that Bynum’s brief stint had on the feel of the game. It was immediately evident that Bynum bothered Brook Lopez, Brooklyn’s best player in the game. Having that true seven-foot rim protector in the paint is going to be a game-changer for the Cavaliers. That much was obvious in just seven minutes Wednesday night. The Cavs outscored the Nets 19-11 with Bynum on the court.
Mike Brown will bring Bynum along slowly, as he should. The fact that he can already play around 10 minutes and looked to be mobile and in decent shape is very encouraging moving forward. Seeing him playing any more than 20 minutes a game before the All-Star break in February would be surprising, but this writer would be perfectly content with around 25 minutes a game from the big man come April. All aboard the Bynum train; it’s going to be a fun ride.
There were several positives to take away from the win over the Nets.
1) Kyrie Irving didn’t play well, yet the Cavs still beat one of the best teams in the league.
Kyrie’s shot wasn’t falling. He ended the night 4-of-16 from the field with no threes. Regardless, he managed to still get his teammates involved, recording nine assists and pulling down seven rebounds.
The main thing to take away is that this year’s squad is so deep that even when Kyrie has an off night, other players can step up and produce. Kyrie got into foul trouble early in the first quarter and Jarrett Jack allowed him to sit the last eight minutes of the quarter while he poured in 10 points. This was a perfect example of just how important of an acquisition Jack was.
2) Dion Waiters played defense!
It’s been obvious since preseason that Waiters has completely bought into Brown’s defensive philosophy. It seems that Brown has drilled defense into Waiters head constantly over the offseason, possibly more than anyone else.
Waiters was also struggling to score in the first half Wednesday night, but it was reassuring to see that he was committed to playing good defense. He visibly bothered Joe Johnson on several plays and limited him to 13 points on 3-of-10 shooting. He then got into a bit of an offensive rhythm right before halftime and created several open mid-range jumpers for himself later in the game.
It was encouraging to see him forcing fewer tough shots and trying to play more controlled. He still had his moments, but it’s obvious Brown has already had an influence on his game. I look forward to seeing his growth throughout the season, especially on the defensive end.
3) The small forward-by-committee position worked well for the opener.
Brown has stated to the media that he will likely split time at the small forward position between Earl Clark, Alonzo Gee and C.J. Miles. He did just that against the Nets, with Clark getting the start and playing 27 minutes, Gee playing 19 minutes and Miles playing 15 minutes.
One would think that one of these guys is going to eventually inherit a reduced role and possibly even fall out of the rotation, but they all produced well in the first game. Miles and Gee shot efficiently and they all seemed to hold their own on defense. Clark’s length and Gee’s defensive discipline both bothered Paul Pierce at times. It will be interesting to monitor these three throughout the season.
4) Tristan Thompson proving all the doubters wrong!
Thompson was drafted two years ago as a project big. The Cavs took a lot of heat for taking him with the fourth pick over players like Jonas Valanciunas. He struggled his rookie season and was thrust into more minutes last season after Anderson Varejao went down early in the year. He had to move from power forward to center and attempt to defend guys much larger than himself. After the All-Star break last season though, something seemed to click and he began playing better. He ended the season averaging 11.7 points and 9.4 rebounds.
This season, he looks poised to take off. He made national headlines in the offseason for switching his shooting hand. So far, that appears to have been a great decision. He had the highest PER (Player Efficiency Rating) on the team in the preseason and looks like he might have a reliable jump shot in the works. I first saw it on display against the Sixers in Columbus, where he knocked down two 15-footers. In the first quarter Wednesday, Thompson put the moves on Kevin Garnett and blew by him to finish a hook shot. Soon after, Thompson faced up Garnett. This time, Garnett gave him some room. Enough room to show he didn’t respect Thompson’s midrange game. Thompson took a second to face him up, gathered and knocked down a 19-footer.
He was arguably the best player on the floor (Lopez) that consisted of seven former NBA All-Stars. His energy, hustle, rebounding, interior defense and leadership were all on display. Tristan is set to have a monster season and it’s going to be a blast to witness.
My official prediction last week for the Cavs regular season wins was 44. I think the Cavs could possibly sniff 40 wins with minimal production from Bynum. Seeing as he already appears to be healthy and working his way back, they could very well be closer to the 50-win mark. Still, injuries have been a nuisance to the Cavs and I feel confident with a 44-win prediction, which would likely make them the 6th seed in the East. Seeing them as high as the 4th seed wouldn’t shock me, though.
There are a myriad of possibilities for this season and so many variables that will affect where the Cavs end up. One thing is for sure though; this season is going to be exciting. Hop on the bandwagon while you still can. I mean, Usher’s already back.
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