INDEPENDENCE — Tristan Thompson played in 23 games as a rookie before he had five total assists. The second-year power forward had that many in the first half Tuesday as the Cavaliers opened the season with a 94-84 victory over the Washington Wizards at Quicken Loans Arena.
Toss in a career-high nine assists by center Anderson Varejao — Thompson’s five were also a career high — and Cleveland’s starting big men were responsible for 14 of the team’s 22 helpers.
“We’ve got some big men who can really pass the ball,” Cavs coach Byron Scott said Wednesday following practice at Cleveland Clinic Courts. “Why not run the offense through them?”
Thompson, who had a stretch of 14 games without an assist early last season and had totaled just two through 19 appearances, found Varejao on a nice high-low pass early in the game, and the Brazilian returned the favor twice in the pivotal closing moments.
With the outcome still hanging very much in the balance, Varejao first hit Thompson with a perfect bounce pass from the foul line, resulting in a dunk. Thompson got another slam the next time down when Varejao hit him with a bounce pass from the baseline, then made it three dunks in three trips off a feed from point guard Kyrie Irving.
Irving had just three assists on the night, while starting shooting guard Dion Waiters had none. As a whole, Cleveland guards had just four assists in their 96 minutes, but the fact Irving had a game-high 29 points, Waiters had 17 and Daniel Gibson added 10 off the bench more than made up for that.
It was just one game, but with Irving easily the best scorer in the starting lineup and Waiters already making a case for being No. 2 — that’s almost by default, actually — the Cavs are likely to continue using their big men to initiate their offense instead of conclude it.
“We don’t have a post-up type big,” Scott said. “The best way to get our guys involved is to have them be screeners and facilitators. Our guys have bought into that.”
Thompson struggled mightily in that area early last season, as he tried to score almost every time he got the ball in the low post or grabbed an offensive rebound.
That made it easy for opponents to double team him, especially since his .552 shooting at the line made it worth risking a foul (or even giving one on purpose when he was in great position).
“I’m just happy for him because of all the work he put in this summer,” Scott said.
Thompson, who also had 12 points and 10 rebounds in the opener, remains very much a work in progress, but Scott loves the fact the 21-year-old is starting to grasp more aspects of the game.
“He’s really looking for guys,” the coach said. “He’s not being the hole, he’s being the hub.”
The 6-foot-9 Thompson, who is closer to 245 pounds than his listed 227, is not going to suddenly turn into Bill Walton with the basketball in his hands, but the Toronto native was genuinely happy after giving and receiving in the win over the Wizards.
“The more big men you have who can pass, the better off you are,” he said. “We’ve been working hard at it.”
The Cavs are 1-0 for just the 12th time in 43 seasons, but getting to 2-0 Friday when they host Chicago won’t be easy.
Point guard Derrick Rose, the 2011 league MVP, is out with a knee injury, but he didn’t play last season when the Bulls downed the Cavs 114-75 at The Q on Jan. 20. Chicago, which had four runs in that game that totaled 49-2, led by as many as 42 points while handing the Cavs their worst home loss in franchise history.
The Bulls also defeated the Cavs 112-91 at The Q on March 2 and 107-75 in Chicago — again without Rose — in the regular-season finale on April 26, meaning their three victories over Cleveland were by an average of 30.7 points. The Cavs were without Irving and Varejao in the latter two games.
The Bulls, who tied San Antonio for the best record in the league last season at 50-16, are still one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference, even without Rose. The Wizards, who finished one game worse than the Cavs last season at 20-46, were minus their two best players Tuesday in point guard John Wall and big man Nene.
“We know the test Friday is going to be a lot tougher,” Scott said.
For what it’s worth, the Cavs had a starting lineup of Donald Sloan, Anthony Parker, Thompson, Antawn Jamison and Alonzo Gee in the regular-season finale against the Bulls, while Luke Walton, Luke Harangody, D.J. Kennedy, Manny Harris and Samardo Samuels played off the bench.
Scott said he plans on sticking with the same second unit against the Bulls, which means the 32-year-old Walton will once again play ahead of Samuels.
Scott didn’t make that decision Tuesday until moments before he put Walton in the game. He liked the results, even though five reserves were on the floor when Washington started a 14-0 run at the beginning of the fourth period.
“Luke’s experience, being able to help the second unit, was going to be invaluable,” Scott said of his decision. “No. 2, he’s a winner. You just put him on the court and he makes plays.”
Actually, the Cavs were outscored by 11 points during Walton’s 12 minutes of action. They were plus-20 in Thompson’s 32 minutes and plus-7 in Varejao’s 37.
As for Samuels, who apparently will eventually play before fellow young big man Jon Leuer, Scott said, “He’s going to get an opportunity again. He just has to be ready.”
Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or firstname.lastname@example.org.