From the second the trade became official, this is how we imagined opening night going down: Kyrie Irving, clad in kelly green for the first time, lining up opposite LeBron James with the clock winding down and the game in the balance. The 2017-18 NBA season opener didn’t begin the way anyone expected or wanted, but we did get that late-game showdown … and it went to the King.
The Boston Celtics bounced back from the brutal blow of losing new addition and All-Star forward Gordon Hayward to a dislocated ankle and fractured tibia less than six minutes into the game, weathering that sucker punch and the 18-point deficit that the Cavs built in its aftermath to take a fourth-quarter lead at Quicken Loans Arena. But then LeBron — evidently not feeling too out of sorts after sitting out preseason and reportedly being a question mark for the opener with a balky ankle — took over, putting Cleveland back in front in the closing seconds and Irving in position to deliver an equalizer in front of the fans who cheered him for the first six years of his career, but booed him heartily during introductions and just about whenever he touched the ball on Tuesday.
This time, though, Irving came up just short:
Kyrie misses game-tying 3-pointer, gets a hug from LeBron pic.twitter.com/Zh1Nr58cvq
— gifdsports (@gifdsports) October 18, 2017
After a missed 3-pointer by Celtics swingman Jaylen Brown, Irving collected an offensive rebound with just under two seconds remaining on the clock and squared up. He saw James flying out at him on the contest, and that was enough to force him to pull the ball down, dribble to his right, and put up a leaning and slightly-out-of-rhythm triple try with James’ hand in his face. It looked to be online, but it fell shy of the front rim, airballing harmlessly to the deck as the buzzer sounded to seal a 102-99 Cavaliers win on the first night of the new campaign.
Immediately after the buzzer sounded, James and Irving — whose relationship drew plenty of scrutiny after Kyrie’s trade request, and who briefly bumped fists before the opening tip — engaged in a more in-depth embrace:
Irving then shared similar handshakes with several other former teammates …
Kyrie dapping up Tristan, Kevin, JR, and Channing pic.twitter.com/0cwdSsQrRK
— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) October 18, 2017
… but, displays of love and affection aside, the final story of opening night was that LeBron’s still the deciding force in Eastern Conference matters until definitively proven otherwise.
James hit the ground running, chipping in four points, four rebounds and four assists in the opening frame as Cleveland opened up a 10-point ege over a Celtics team that seemed shell-shocked after the loss of Hayward. The Cavs kept the pedal down in the second, with James, ex-Celtic forward Jae Crowder and once-and-future sixth man J.R. Smith carrying the scoring load to give the Cavaliers a 54-38 edge entering intermission.
The Celtics, though, proved their mettle coming out of halftime, clawing their way back into the proceedings behind determined defensive work — they forced eight Cavs turnovers in the third quarter, scoring 13 points — and the youthful aggression of Brown, Marcus Smart and Jayson Tatum, who combined to outscore Cleveland 28-18 in the third. After a buzzer-beater by new Cleveland point guard Derrick Rose, the Cavs headed into the fourth with only a one-point advantage.
The two teams traded blows for the bulk of the final frame, with Brown, Tatum and pitbull guard Terry Rozier chipping in for Boston, while James largely carried the Cavs. In the last three minutes, though, LeBron reminded all those watching that the Q was his house, hooking up with old friend Dwyane Wade for a backdoor cut and an alley-oop dunk:
Stop if you've heard this before.
— NBA (@NBA) October 18, 2017
… before spinning his way through the Boston defense for a layup:
… and rifling a cross-court pass out of the post to a wide-open Kevin Love in the far corner for a 3-pointer that gave Cleveland a four-point lead with 46 seconds left:
LeBron finds Love to extend the @cavs run to 7-0!
— NBA (@NBA) October 18, 2017
That the Celtics even had a chance to tie it up at the end of the fourth after losing Hayward so suddenly and stunningly speaks to the collective fortitude of Brad Stevens’ group. In the end, though, Irving (10 of his 22 points in the fourth quarter, 10 assists, four rebounds, three steals and only two turnovers in 39 minutes) pulled the string, and James (13 of his 29 in the last stanza, 16 rebounds, nine assists, two blocks and four turnovers in 41 minutes) pulled out the win.
Not that LeBron’s necessarily happy with his performance, natch:
"I don't like where I'm at right now" —LeBron James, 29 pts., 16 boards, 9 assists.
— Scott Tobias (@scott_tobias) October 18, 2017
After an opening night that saw Boston suffer a staggering loss and Cleveland at times look uncomfortable navigating on both ends with Rose and Wade in the starting lineup, it’s clear that both revamped Eastern Conference finalists have plenty to figure out. On Tuesday, though, the Cavs’ star outpaced his former apprentice in an ending that seemed straight out of the writers room at the NBA offices in New York.
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