>Tonight on TNT: Celtics vs. Cavaliers (8 ET)
CLEVELAND — The 2017-18 NBA season we’re about to begin is said to lack drama, lack freshness and — with experts and non-experts alike predicting Golden State-Cleveland IV in The Finals next June — lack any real capacity to surprise.
So stop focusing on the back end already, and focus on the front. The very first of what eventually will be 1,230 regular season games brings all that stuff. In spades.
Turn back the clock just a few months and the Boston Celtics’ visit to Quicken Loans Arena to face the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first of two Opening Night games would have seemed pretty standard-issue, season-opening fare.
The Eastern Conference champions, at home, against a top contender for that crown. There’d be a few new faces around the edges, most likely, considering how successful both teams’ cores had been. And since there’s no ring ceremony to (depending on your rooting interest) savor or sit through this time around, that’d be about it. Ho-hum. Some folks might even have believed LeBron James and his sore left ankle would skip it for therapeutic reasons.
But that’s not this Celts vs. Cavs tipoff game. Not even close.
He’s going to cancel out the crowd noise. He’ll probably see a lot of boos, but Kyrie is a competitor and I don’t think it will affect him. Not one bit.
ESPN analyst Paul Pierce, on Kyrie Irving’s return to Cleveland
Thanks to Kyrie Irving and his apparent restlessness for the next level of personal stardom, just about every dial on this one has been turned to 11. Competitiveness, familiarity (with each other), unfamiliarity (with themselves), resentment all figure to be at new highs as a result of Irving’s trade request out of Cleveland and the Cavs’ decision to grant it in a blockbuster with their fiercest challengers.
> Morning Tip: Mega-trade between Cavs, Celtics doesn’t change much in East
So now, Irving is a Cavaliers’ friend turned foe, facing a return to the franchise he emotionally abandoned and a town he most recently dissed. Following LeBron James’ lead, fans at “The Q” might be polite during the minute or so a planned video tribute to Irving unspools on the vast videoboards early in the evening, but the rest of the night figures to be as surly toward Irving as it was in that building in 2010 toward James.
“He’s going to cancel out the crowd noise,” former Celtics star turned ESPN analyst Paul Pierce told reporters Monday in a teleconference interview. “He’ll probably see a lot of boos, but Kyrie is a competitor and I don’t think it will affect him. Not one bit. He has some nervous energy from going back to a team that he played for his whole career, but I think after maybe the first couple minutes, he’ll get over it and be fine.”
Whatever reception and contact goes on between James and the alleged protégé who snubbed him as no teammate ever has will be part of the entertainment as well. If one or both take the high road, if there’s a hug or a handshake or both, well, let’s be honest: Most of us won’t believe it anyway. Not now, with feelings so raw and so much to be worked out, on the same court and from afar, over the next seven months.
There’s more: Irving’s switch into Boston green meant that the Celtics’ MVP from last season, Isaiah Thomas, would be switching in the opposite direction, against his will. And since Thomas and his ailing right hip can’t participate yet, Cleveland will plug in a replacement with his own emotional, winding saga. Former Kia MVP Derrick Rose finally, maybe, this time will manage to overcome injuries, mesh with the talent around him and help a team win. Or not.
In all, more than half of the players from these clubs’ 2016-17 rosters will be new. Boston returns with only one starter, center Al Horford, intact from the East finals team that lost in five games to the Cavs. Only three other Celtics — Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier and Jaylen Brown — accompany him. That’s a massive season-to-season overhaul for a team that already was on the rise. And for all his maneuvering, in spite of so much excitement about Irving, coveted free-agent acquisition Gordon Hayward and promising rookie Jayson Tatum, the only definite thing GM Danny Ainge has to show for it is a cold war with Thomas, the feisty guard whose feelings got bruised in the trade.
The Cavaliers are considerably reconfigured as well, with only James starting in the same spot as last season. Kevin Love is Cleveland’s new starting center, bumping his stretch-4 skills up a spot for offensive purposes. That helps to accommodate Rose and James’ old pal Dwyane Wade as the starting and not-exactly-sharpshooting backcourt.
Between them, Rose and Wade have a trail of gauze and bandages long enough to wrap a month of Halloween mummies, but the plan is for Cavs coach Tyronn Lue to manage their minutes and deploy his squad’s newfound depth expertly enough to avoid nagging or serious injuries not just for them but for all.
Forward Jae Crowder, previously Boston’s fierce defender and deep threat, came over too in the deal to satisfy Irving and he’s only slightly less peeved about it than Thomas. Crowder is now a Cavs starter, which means both Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith — after starting for a team that went to three consecutive Finals — have been moved to the bench. There’s a dynamic there for Cleveland’s chemistry that will play out over time but will get plenty of mentions in Game 1.
That might be the best thing about the offseason interactions of these competitors and growing rivals: The seeds sown over the summer will take most of the 2017-18 season to bloom.
Boston upgraded and downgraded all at once, losing a fair amount of grit and identity in Thomas, Crowder and two-way guard Avery Bradley (jettisoned to Detroit to make way for Hayward, bringing back injured Marcus Morris in the deal). It remains to be seen how it all meshes, particularly given Irving’s desire to shine.
Said Pierce: “Who’s going to be willing to sacrifice? Who’s going to be willing to take less or do more? Those things come up. When you look at Gordon, he was the leading man in Utah. Kyrie, he was the leading man at some point, but then he became the second fiddle to LeBron. Now he’s probably going to be the leading man again. How will Gordon Hayward take to that? How will the rest of the guys, the rookies and the young guys fall into their role?”
For Cleveland, this doesn’t figure to be another 82-game slog of survival like last season. The Cavaliers actually need the long run-up to the postseason to gel and coalesce. Thomas is expected back before February, and swapping out starting point guards on the fly is no simple thing even for mediocre teams. More than that, there’s a Miami Rust feel to this group, new faces orbiting a revamped Big Three, except the principals are older and no one has time to burn a Finals the way the ascending Heat did in 2010-11.
Oh, and we’ll ignore the elephant in the room of James’ impending free agency just like everyone else is pretending to.
So both the Celtics and the Cavaliers need to wring more meaning out of the games they’ll play between tonight and mid-April. Toronto, Washington and maybe even Milwaukee will be pushing hard, too. There’s some desperation in Detroit and Charlotte and an anxious mix of potential and impatience in Philadelphia, all contributing to an Eastern Conference that doesn’t seem quite as sleepy as it might have a few months back.
For that, we can give credit to Irving and his antsy, ambitious ways. He’ll be the one Tuesday night with the jersey in flames.
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