CHRIS GRANTLAND: THE CAVALIERS RETURN

Cleveland was the most thirsty place on the planet last night.  There’s a pain, but also a power to that.  It makes you cheer for violence and other things you are normally against.  You sit among the thugs, you are them.  You are thinking unspeakable thoughts. 

It’s as if a boat has landed full of us on a beachfront.  We are exploding with glazed eyes and savage ideation.  And the season begins.

TRISTAN THOMPSON SCORED WITH BOTH HANDS LAST NIGHT, AND HAD HIS WAY WITH BROOKLYN  (Cavs.com David Liam Kyle NBAE via Getty Images)

It’s now the beginning of the fourth quarter, and everything is different than it was seven months ago.  It’s jarring, disorienting.  Mike Brown stands in front of the Cavaliers bench, directing traffic into patterns that have been worn over months in the summertime and into the preseason, shorn from his imagination.  The defense, which was virtually non-existent over the last dozen games of the 12-13 season, is now very real.  Players step up to prevent penetration.  There is quick rotation and switching.  There is no space in the middle of the court and the Nets have struggled for second chance points, relying heavily on outside shooting to keep themselves in the game.

There is a sense that the Nets have taken themselves for granted, a new superteam constructed without regard to the penalties of the new CBA.  A team that will cost a massive amount in salary and penalties after absorbing both Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett this summer.  Perhaps they thought it would be easier, or perhaps the mystery of the first game of the season, with it’s incompletely installed offensive systems and lack of player cohesion has this high powered team struggling.  They are without their coach, Jason Kidd, who is serving a suspension for a DUI.  They are filled with veterans, yet they lack a strong sense of direction.

Andrew Bynum has played seven minutes and thirty eight seconds of this game.  They were early in the game, but they were impactful.  He does not dominate by scoring, but with a huge athletic frame that takes up space in the paint, that draws massive attention, that plays defense with purpose.  That protects the rim.  He is more than we were told to believe he could be, and he has shocked everyone by returning to play opening day.

There is no so quiet speculation that this has been calculated, that Bynum was always targeted to play on Opening Day.  He’s practiced 3 on 3 with Anderson Varejao, who said after the game that Bynum was much stronger than he had been in practices.  Varejao himself has played with energy, which has been his calling card, and even abandon, diving on the floor for a loose ball at one point like it was 2007.  Bynum is a different kind of center.  One which would never have been considered as a power forward.

In Mike Brown’s post game press conference, he claims that, here in the fourth quarter with the game still in question, that Andrew Bynum approached him and wanted “3 more minutes”.  Brown said that he refused, and also declined to set a timeline for the playing schedule of Bynum, whether he would play back to back, more or fewer minutes, or even play with any regularity at all.  Mike Brown makes these decisions.

Tristan Thompson was nasty, a version of himself that had shown itself as consistent and gradual growth into something powerful, fierce and skilled.

Do you remember? It was April 3, 2013.  Moondog Appreciation Night.  A complete lack of focus, defense and perhaps a certain level of disinterest on the court led to the Cavaliers being down by 30 points at halftime against the Nets.  You remember it as the game that took the then losing streak to 10 games. 

You are Tristan Thompson.  You remember that game as the one that led to a closed team meeting.  To an unforgettable night against Boston when you became a beast, playing with every emotion through to your Canadian bones.  The culmination of the progression the season and your professional career.  When the Cavaliers were rudderless, you formed yourself into the rudder.  You were the voice that stepped up for a coach that had no future with the team.  You were the balls, the venom. 

You went to summer league.  You mentored the new Canadian draft pick.  You spent a regimen of hours in gymnasiums learning to shoot with your off hand, your right hand.  You played for your national team with a newly constructed shooting stroke.  You have no ego.  You do what it takes to win games.

Kyrie Irving and Jarrett Jack pour in critical points, but you, you are the spine that connects that makes these points critical.  And all this work and actual dedication has made you look like the best player on the court. 

After a critical offensive rebound is missed, you slide over on the bench to Coach Brown “No one wants to get offensive boards,” Brown would recall you saying, “I’m going to go get all of them.”

7:27 game is tied.  Kyrie Irving has the ball and fumbles, then bailed out by Wild Thing jump shot that seems unlikely but somehow finds the middle of the rim.

Before the present iteration of Varejao stepped out onto the court, he had a first quarter last season when he scored 17 points.  That was also against the Nets, November 13, 2012 at the start of a season where he looked like one of the best players in basketball, collecting points and rebounds at an incredible rate, following international play for Brasil where he was a buzzsaw at the height of his abilities, scoring, rebounding, dominating on defense.  Yet he’s still left open to take shots by this same Nets franchise.  They have poorly planned for him. 

He is difficult to plan for.  He is an anomaly, something the Cavs and the league have never seen before.  When he makes a critical shot, there is no sense that it has ever happened.  He is constantly building new memories of himself.  He is Mike Brown’s Frankenstein Monster, built in the frenzy of a late term aborted playoff run in the 2000s.  He is the personification of Brown’s defensive schemes.  The blood clot and the injured wheel have healed and this is happening.

It is Halloween Eve in Cleveland, and this monster has returned to the court.  The Cavaliers offense in this game, even to the end, is sloppy, but it doesn’t matter.  This defense has set the village on alight, and the village is Brooklyn.  The Nets have unraveled, pointing fingers just minutes into a season of huge expectations, as the game concludes 98-94.

And in the end every possession matters to this crowd in the end. There have been games since 2010 like this, a false sense of meaning, like the false feeling of a missing leg.  We have had vitriol, we have gnashed our teeth for revenge, but here this is different.  Mike Brown has returned.  Historic losing streaks have concluded.  This is all very real.  There is a deafening howling, a feeling of import, of arrival, of optimism and every breath is sulfur fire and blood is in the water and hearts are swollen with pride and we have returned. 

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