CLEVELAND: He has always been known for his energy, defensive tenacity and rebounding, but it was Anderson Varejao’s vision and offensive awareness that won the Cavaliers’ opener on Tuesday.
Varejao had 23 rebounds and nine assists, both career highs, to go with nine points in the Cavs’ 94-84 victory over the injury-depleted Washington Wizards. Varejao has never been known to stuff multiple categories on a stat sheet, but he was one point and one rebound away from his first triple-double.
“I wish I had a little bit more time,” Varejao joked. “I was just trying to be active. I went after every offensive rebound.”
The Cavs desperately missed Varejao last season when he missed the final two months with a fractured hand. How much they missed him was evident upon his return.
The Cavs carried a 12-point lead into the fourth quarter, but the bench players gave it up quickly by going scoreless for the first five minutes. By the time coach Byron Scott could get the starters back in the game, the Wizards had a 76-74 lead.
Kyrie Irving’s 29 points and Dion Waiters’ 17 played a big role in wrestling back the lead, but it was Varejao’s assists on dump offs to Tristan Thompson on consecutive possessions in the final minutes that sealed the win.
“We’re changing our offense. I’m having the ball in my hands a lot,” Varejao said. “Every time I passed the ball, they made shots.’
The Cavs needed every one of them to fend off a plucky Wizards team playing without their two best players, Nene Hilario and John Wall. Hilario’s absence cleared a little room in the middle and allowed Varejao to grab 12 offensive rebounds.
“He must be a nightmare to try and defend,” Scott said of Varejao.
As for Irving and Waiters, they provided exactly what the Cavaliers envisioned when they selected Waiters fourth overall. A poor summer and preseason didn’t help, but Scott has insisted for the last week that Waiters closed training camp strong in practice and the proof came on Tuesday.
His first basket was on a breakaway dunk and he added two 3-pointers — including a big 3 that provided the Cavs their first points of the fourth quarter. Waiters let out a roar following the dunk and pounded his chest. He later waved his arms in excitement as the crowd roared in the fourth quarter and generally seemed to enjoy his debut. But he doesn’t believe he needed a good showing to boost his own confidence and squelch speculation over whether or not he was the right choice.
“I wasn’t worried about that. That’s preseason. None of that counts at the end of the day,” Waiters said. “It’s a learning experience. I’m more comfortable now, I know the offense. All I’ve got to do is go out there and play my game.”
He outplayed Wizards rookie Bradley Beal, who was selected two spots ahead of him in June. Beal finished with eight points on 2-of-8 shooting, but Waiters said he didn’t get any added motivation from going against him. The Cavs’ starting backcourt outscored the Wizards’ 46-15.
“They’ll continue to get better,” Scott said. “They’re both very young and just starting to play together. They’ve got a good feel for each other.”
The Cavs built a 16-point lead in the second half on the strength of their starters, but the bench players gave it all back. Bench scoring has been one of Scott’s concerns throughout the preseason, and Tuesday proved why, although Scott wasn’t overly concerned. The Cavs’ reerves combined for 23 points. Daniel Gibson had 10.
The Cavs host the Chicago Bulls on Friday before embarking on a monstrous six-game trip that includes a stop in every time zone.
Jason Lloyd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Cavs blog at https://ohio.com/cavs. Follow him on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.