It doesn’t matter if your team is hyped, not-hyped or anti-hyped: Game 1 of the season has a way of revealing just what is at the core of each team’s psyche. (At least, what that psyche looks like here in the relatively unimportant October.) And what can really get things out of whack is a ring ceremony. The ring was earned months ago — ancient history, now — and waiting all the way until next year to celebrate last year’s victories can sometimes look like devastating self-sabotage.
A decade out, and the 2006 Miami Heat’s 108-66 Game 1 blooper reel — with rings on fingers, though! — is still name-checked in wonderment. Sometimes the rings linger like a hangover. October 2013, LeBron James and the Heatles fumbled Game 2 to Sam Hinkie’s Philadelphia 76ers, 114-110, letting Michael Carter-Williams get within visible range of a quadruple-double. Oops.
The point being that there felt something extra-impressive about the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 117-88 victory over the New York Knicks on Tuesday night. It was easy to forget that the Cavaliers are, honestly, in a precarious mental position even without the pregame rings: they don’t really need to compete in the regular season, we say. And also, we say, Cleveland must show significant improvement in order to actually contend against the Golden State Warriors. In Game 1, Cleveland showed improvement in the best way — by administering a blowout and pulling the starters off the floor for a sleepy fourth quarter.
The Cavaliers acquired maybe one new rotation player over the summer in Mike Dunleavy. What is also happening, though, is that the team is playing with a relaxed confidence and mutual trust. These vibes are also basically a new acquisition: it was only the beginning of 2016 when the team had fired their coach, was looking to trade Kevin Love, and traveled and practiced and played on the brink of an anxiety attack. That is all quite distant history, now.
Here is an unbelievably heady sequence of team defense — one that I had to watch a few times in order to clock in everybody’s contributions. With about 12 seconds left on the shot clock, Cleveland switched on a pick-and-roll, which created two mismatches: Tristan Thompson on Brandon Jennings and Kyrie Irving on Kristaps Porzingis. The Cavaliers still locked the Knicks out of a clean look at the basket:
While Richard Jefferson only had to monitor a (walking) Carmelo Anthony, each of the other four Cavaliers had to step outside of their usual roles in order to clinch the successful possession.
Tristan Thompson: Tenaciously used his footwork and agility to keep Jennings in front of him.
LeBron James: Recognized the Irving-on-Porzingis mismatch from across the court. Then James communicated with Irving so that James switched onto Porzingis. This is the superstar, setting the tone that defense is a team effort.
Kyrie Irving: Irving wound up guarding four different Knicks on the play. First Jennings, then Porzingis, then Kyle O’Quinn, and then he worked with J.R. Smith to switch from O’Quinn onto Courtney Lee.
J.R. Smith: After alertly switching onto O’Quinn — still a mismatch to New York’s advantage — Smith boxed out and drew a loose ball foul on O’Quinn.
If J.R. Smith is helping you win possessions with defensive switching and tough box-outs, uh, things are going pretty good. It’s only been one game, but the Cavaliers own the best defensive rating in the NBA. If they can keep up this kind of intensity and attention to detail on the defensive end, watch out.