CLEVELAND: It had been 527 days since Andrew Bynum last appeared in an NBA game. When he got off the bench late in the first quarter and pulled off his warm-ups, expectations for the Cavaliers changed instantly.
Anderson Varejao’s jumper from the free-throw line with 28 seconds left lifted the Cavs to a thrilling 98-94, season-opening victory against the Brooklyn Nets in a game where Bynum’s productive eight minutes captured the night.
Kyrie Irving had 15 points, nine assists and seven rebounds despite shooting 4-of-16, Tristan Thompson had 18 points and nine rebounds and Jarrett Jack had 12 points off the bench.
Bynum finished with three points, three rebounds, two assists and two blocks and changed the dynamic of the game. The Cavs trailed 21-15 when he entered the game with 3:40 left in the first quarter. They led 32-24 when he departed with 8:06 left in the second quarter.
“We’re a different team when he’s out there,” Cavs coach Mike Brown said. “He still has room to grow. You only saw a taste of what he can bring. It was exciting to see him out there. Not only for the coaches, but the players and fans.”
Bynum didn’t play the rest of the night, which was expected. He wasn’t cleared to play until hours before tipoff. His minutes are expected to gradually increase now.
“Kind of like riding a bike,” Bynum said. “I’ve been in the league a long time. I know I missed all of last year, but I’m feeling better now and I’m out there playing.”
Bynum last played in an NBA game on May 21, 2012, for the Los Angeles Lakers. He missed all of last season as a member of the Philadelphia 76ers because of injuries to both knees and had arthroscopic surgery on both knees in March.
The Cavs signed him as a free agent during the summer not knowing exactly what they would get out of him. Their first impression was awfully impressive.
He swatted a Deron Williams pass into the seats and was credited with another block when Reggie Evans lost possession trying to get a shot up around him. He shoved Evans to nearly the 3-point line on a box out and scored on a tip-in under the basket.
It was his only basket, and his shot looked a little rusty (he was 1-for-5, including an air ball). But during one possession in the second quarter, Bynum tried passing out of the post. When nothing was open, he put the ball on the court and bulled through Nets All-Star Brook Lopez to get up a nifty hook shot from about 13 feet with his left hand.
The shot didn’t fall, but it showed his offensive moves didn’t erode with the year away.
The Cavs were cautious throughout his rehab and were careful not to put any timeline on his return, while privately eyeing the start of the season as a best-case scenario.
Bynum has been playing 5-on-5 in practice for the past couple of weeks and working out extensively with player development coach Vitaly Potapenko for more than a month with no problems.
“I don’t think I’ve accomplished anything yet,” Bynum said.
“I want to get back to the caliber of player I was. That’s going to take some time and I have to be patient.”
Just because Bynum is cleared doesn’t mean the knee problems are behind him. He hasn’t played an entire season since 2006-07, his second year in the league. That’s also the only time he has played more than 65 games.
Brown said he could elect to sit Bynum for three consecutive games at some point this season even if he’s healthy, simply to save the wear and tear on his knees.
“I don’t know how often situations like that come around where you’ve got a 25-year-old veteran who’s been in the league eight or nine years and less than two years ago was an All-Star,” Cavs owner Dan Gilbert said.
“Clearly he has knee challenges, but the doctors at the Cleveland Clinic were of the belief that he had a pretty good chance of coming through it and being able to play a decent amount of minutes. For us and the cap space we had, it was a pretty easy decision.”
Jason Lloyd can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Cavs blog at http://www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow him on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.