The Cleveland Cavaliers beat Maccabi Tel Aviv on Sunday night, kicking off a new era of Cavaliers basketball. The win wasn't surprising, but the guys who excelled in the victory may have been. LeBron James and Kevin Love headlined a fantastic summer for the team, but it was holdovers like Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters, and Kyrie Irving who were most impressive in the blowout win.
Don't get me wrong here: If the Cavs are a championship team, it will be Love, LeBron, Irving, and Blatt who kick the team into high gear. Thompson and Waiters are going to be the role players. This was one preseason game against a team that doesn't play in the NBA, but it was hard to see those guys tonight and feel anything but optimism that they have important roles within the team, and are capable in fulfilling their responsibilities.
Let's start with Kyrie Irving, who played with defensive intensity and controlled the game for various stretches, especially the start of the third quarter when LeBron James exited the game post-halftime. He made the right passes, didn't turn the ball over, looked for his shot responsibly. He finished with 16 points on 13 shots, five assists (and it could have been higher), two steals and zero turnovers. He will have nights where he is more efficient scoring, but as long as he isn't forcing offense with the talent around him, the Cavs will be fine.
Waiters had 15 points on 14 shots. I didn't notice his defense, which is probably a good thing. He set up his teammates for open catch and shoot threes, and was generally willing to keep the ball moving. He got hot in the third quarter for a brief stretch, but those stretches will be valuable. If he defends, spots up, and takes the offense over for brief stretches without disrupting the team's rhythm, it's going to be a successful third season for Waiters.
And I have to gush a little bit about Thompson. He started the game, and to my surprise, outplayed Anderson Varejao. I don't expect the latter part to continue, but the game did provide a glimpse of areas where Thompson can provide value for the Cavs moving forward. For one, he got out in transition early and often. He was fantastic in this area last season, according to Synergy, and now he has Kevin Love and LeBron James setting him up. Joe Harris even got in the fray and got him an alley hoop. Similar to Waiters taking an ill-advised midrange jumper, Thompson is still far from a pretty player, particularly in the halfcourt, but he was incredibly efficient tonight.
Thompson also defended well, both on weak side help and in extending his defense out to the perimeter. We know he struggled at times in both areas last season. Thompson was his usual self on the glass, finishing with 13 rebounds in 19 minutes. He had 14 points on 10 shots.
I won't do a bullet points version where I go over everyone, but Varejao had perhaps the least effective game. Of course, he had 15 rebounds in 17 minutes, so what do I know? Kevin Love didn't score much, and was perhaps a little too ambitious with some outlet passes, but the value he provides as a floor spacer is doing wonders for the Cavaliers already. He's going to be an essential component of the team, hopefully for a very long time.
What did you guys see?