The Cleveland Cavaliers received a welcome fit for champions in the Schottenstein Center on Tuesday night. In a preseason matchup against the Washington Wizards, the Cavaliers trotted onto the court in front of a crowd of both Cavalier and Buckeye fans to show off the unit they would be presenting to defend their 2016 NBA championship.
Cleveland started the All-Star filled cast of small forward LeBron James, power forward Kevin Love, point guard Kyrie Irving, shooting guard J.R. Smith and center Tristan Thompson. The Wine and Gold could not keep pace, and dropped the contest 96-91 to the Washington Wizards in a game highlighted by big time dunks and contested three-pointers.
Ending warmups with a dunk fest by all team members, the Cavaliers were welcomed to Columbus with screams of excitement from fans of all ages. Smith, after knocking down a half court three-point bomb while warming up, quickly ran to the sideline to autograph some young fans’ memorabilia.
Led by 15 first-quarter points by Love, Cleveland showed exactly why the team was able to come back from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals last season. The team owned a 10-point lead by the end of the first.
After the game, Love said the Schottenstein Center made for a memorable backdrop for the final preseason game of the year for Cleveland.
“It was great. It’s always fun playing in a college town,” Love said. “LeBron has told us a lot about this place. Naturally, throughout the years there’s been a lot of winning here. Great atmosphere because of that. It was great to play in front of the fans here in Columbus for sure.”
During the second half, Irving left the court and jogged into the team tunnel. According to a Cavaliers spokesperson, he was feeling some tightness in his calf, and would not return to the game.
Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said the small issue with Irving is nothing to worry about, and the team is now ready to move ahead into the regular season.
“Everyone came out injury-free,” Lue said about the preseason. “(Irving) got a little, but it’s nothing serious. The whole group that we have, just get them out, injury-free. Now we’re ready to start the regular season.”
Although the final score read 96-91 in favor of Washington, the Cavaliers have multiple reasons to be pleased with the team moving past the preseason. The largest reason being the starting core of players for Cleveland looks ready for whatever challenges lay ahead.
James poured in 18 points along with four rebounds and four steals. His lone block of the night, on Washington small forward Kelly Oubre Jr., was eerily similar to his chasedown block of Golden State point guard Steph Curry in the NBA finals of last year.
“We just want to continue to hone in on our game both offensively and defensively,” James said. “We got a week to get ready for Game One, but we’re going to learn throughout the whole season. It’s not going to come together in six days before opening day, it’s a process for us and we understand that and if we follow that we’ll be fine.”
James shared the sentiments of Love, and said coming to a place to play that is so close to his home and Quicken Loans Arena made for a boisterous crowd.
Love and Thompson provided a dynamic duo of big men, as Love dropped in a trio of three pointers, while Thompson was perfect from the floor on six attempts. Thompson picked up 14 points total to go along with 10 rebounds, earning a double-double.
Guard Jordan McRae led the Cavaliers bench with 7 points. Although the team did not have a star coming off the bench against Washington, Cleveland showed depth at nearly every position.
In the offseason, the Cavaliers acquired veteran Mike Dunleavy, who is listed as both a guard and forward, and power forward Chris Andersen. Both have been around the NBA for more than 10 years, and bring experience to the team that was occasionally lacking from the reserves last season.
On the other end of the spectrum, rookie guard Kay Felder saw the court for nine minutes on Tuesday. Listed at just 5-foot-9, Felder is expected to contribute a fair portion of playing time after Matthew Dellavedova’s offer sheet from the Milwaukee Bucks was not matched by Cleveland in the offseason.
The Cavaliers move into the regular season with a target on their backs after last season’s historic NBA Finals victory. The team has a new look with new players and the arrival of newly resigned Smith, and Lue said the team is still in the feeling out phase.
“Like I said before the game, it’s going to be a work in progress,” Lue said. “Just keep mixing different lineups up until we find what works for us. We have a different team with the backup point guard situation. Just keep mixing and matching until we find the right combination.”
Cleveland opens the the regular season at home against the New York Knicks on Tuesday at 8 p.m. on TNT.