Despite the lack of compelling headlines that our other two opening night games had, I thoroughly enjoyed this contest, if for no other reason than that I completely obsessed with the sport of basketball. But for real, this was a very entertaining game. The combination of uniforms, Cleveland’s talented young core and Washington’s never die attitude made this game competitive down to the wire.
The Cavs were led by a trio of players that I would imagine will lead the team for the rest of the season: Kyrie Irving, Anderson Verajao and rookie Dion Waiters.
Let’s start with Irving. The sophomore was magnificent in this game, even his his turnovers outnumbered his assists. Irving is in better shape than he was last season and the result was an ever quicker first step than the one he tore apart defenses with last season, an improved mid-range game and some noticeably better defense. The most significant of those improvements is certainly his defense, as Irving was the biggest sieve in basketball on that end of the floor based on Synergy’s numbers. But Irving was much more capable of staying with his man and his footwork seemed to be much better. It is clear that Irving took the time out this summer to improve his physical condition and to better himself at the subtle things that make stars into superstars.
Hit the jump for the rest of Mark’s piece…
Sure, his assignment on this night was A.J. Price, but he didn’t let him get into the paint at all last night and that’s a start (on Monday he’ll face off against Chris Paul, which will be a must watch matchup). Irving torched whoever was in front of him on the other end, and when the Wizards stuck Trevor Ariza on him in crunchtime, Irving made the proper plays to mute Ariza’s defensive impact. Irving scored 29 points (on 11-of-20 shooting) with six boards, three assists and three threes. Irving also showed that his unusually brilliant performance in the clutch last season was no fluke by making four straight plays for his team after Washington had cut the lead to four. Irving is just so calm and cool under pressure that it’s hard not to be incredibly impressed when watching, and his game is starting to round into all-star level form.
In addition to the various on-ball improvements that Irving seems to have made, it looks like Kyrie will be playing a large amount off the ball this season. The Cavs made that plan clear from the get go when they started allowing Dion Waiters to bring the ball up the floor while Irving spotted up on the wing. Waiters attempted as many shots off of pick-and-rolls yesterday as Irving did, and he seemed to have a ton of success at getting into the paint. He’s not beating guys off the bounce in isolation, but you can kind of see the Dwyane Wade comparisons in the way that Waiters gets into the paint consistently. Four of Waiters’ six shot attempts out of the pick-and-roll came at the basket, and while he only made one of his shots at the rim, him getting there was enough to help out the Cavs, as it allowed for Anderson Varejao to crash the offensive glass against the collapsed defense.
And crash Varejao did. Varejao finished this game with a ridiculous 23 rebounds, 12 of which were offensive rebounds, meaning that Varejao created 12 extra possessions for the Cavs based purely on his hard work, and those possessions made all the difference in a game that wound up being close in the fourth quarter. But Varejao’s unbelievable rebounding performance wasn’t all. Andy also dished out nine assists, finding cutters and spot-up shooters like a pure point guard and whipping the ball to Tristan Thompson in the fourth quarter when Washington’s defense left him alone under the basket. Varejao was the MVP of this game and he did so scoring just nine points. There aren’t a lot of players capable of impacting a game this much without scoring in double digits, but Varejao is truly a special player and I absolutely love the way that he fits on this Cavs team.
Cleveland’s problem is their second unit. A Donald Sloan, Boobie Gibson, Luke Walton, C.J. Miles/Alonzo Gee and Tyler Zeller line-up started the fourth quarter for the Cavs and that is when Washington made their 14-0 run to get back into the game. Once Irving returned, the Cavs were able to get the lead back, but that second unit is going to be torched by every playoff caliber team that Cleveland runs into. On the brightside, Varejao seemed to have some great chemistry with Tristan Thompson (who looked good in this game and put up a solid 12 point, 10 rebound, five assist line) and that could be a very good passing tandem this season. With some depth, this Cavs team will make some noise in the future. I just hope they still have Varejao once they have a team capable of competing for a playoff spot.
Washington competed in this game, and I gave Randy Wittman a lot of credit for that. His team never quit and, despite shooting 36% from the field in this game, they forced 21 Cavalier turnovers and got themselves back into the game in the fourth quarter. I also liked the flexibility that Wittman showed with his line-ups. All game long A.J. Price struggled to get anything going at the point of attack for the Wizards and it really handcuffed their offense. So instead of going back to his starter in Price like a lot of coaches would during crunchtime, Wittman decided to go with a line-up that did not feature a traditional point guard since Jordan Crawford had been having some success getting into the paint (though he shot 0-of-6 from deep). I’ll respect any coach that doesn’t have set in stone line-ups designated by positions and it nearly earned Wittman a season opening victory.
You could see the potential in Washington’s offense but Price just couldn’t get inside the arc in order to create things for his teammates. Washington still managed to survive thanks to some solid wing play from Trevor Ariza (he looked really in sync with former Hornet teammate Emeka Okafor) and it should only look better once Nene, John Wall and Kevin Seraphin return to action.
Depending on my schedule over at Silver Screen and Roll, I may not always do a Laker recap here. I recapped last night’s game for SS&R and you can go read my take there.