CLEVELAND — Kyrie Irving scored 29 points, Anderson Varejao had a career-high 23 rebounds and the Cleveland Cavaliers opened the season with a 94-84 victory over the short-handed Washington Wizards on Tuesday night in the first game on the NBA schedule.
Rookie Dion Waiters added 17 points for the Cavs, who led by 16 in the third quarter but needed big plays from Irving and Varejao in the final minutes to hold off the Wizards, who scored the first 14 points of the fourth. Varejao had a career-high nine assists, two setting up dunks by Tristan Thompson in the last two minutes.
Jordan Crawford scored 11 points to lead the Wizards, who were without star point guard John Wall, power forward Nene and forward Kevin Seraphin. Wall, the former No. 1 overall pick, is expected to be out until late November with a knee injury.
Irving, the NBA’s reigning rookie of the year, began his second season with a strong performance alongside Waiters, a surprising No. 4 overall pick. Waiters didn’t start a game at Syracuse, but Cavs coach Byron Scott has been impressed with his progress and wanted to pair his two young guards together from the outset.
They played well in spurts, but made enough mistakes to keep Scott from giving them too much freedom.
The Cavs seemed to be on their way to a relatively routine win, but in a league where players are fond of saying “every team makes a run,” the Wizards made theirs.
Down 61-45 in the third quarter and looking flat, Washington opened the fourth with its 14-0 spurt, taking a 76-74 lead when Jannero Pargo drained a 3-pointer from the corner. The Wizards rallied while Irving was getting some rest, and it wasn’t long before Scott sent his young star back in to help restore order.
Irving’s driving layup in traffic gave Cleveland an 82-80 lead, and he calmly stepped up and drained a 21-foot jumper to put the Cavaliers ahead 86-80.
With the Cavs up by four, Varejao, the Cavs’ 6-foot-11 bundle of energy, fed Thompson underneath for a dunk to make it 88-84. Crawford made two free throws for Washington, and on Cleveland’s next possession, Irving made a spin move in the lane and passed it to Varejao, who then upstaged his slick passing teammate with a feed to Thompson for another dunk.
Irving then rebounded a miss by the Wizards and it was his turn to pick up an assist to Thompson.
Wizards rookie Bradley Beal scored eight points — all in the first half — and Emeka Okafor had 10 points. Washington coach Randy Wittman has high hopes for his young team, but he won’t know what he has until he gets Wall and Nene back on the court.
Despite Cleveland’s youth — an average age of 24.9 years — and inexperience, Irving believes the Cavs can contend for a playoff spot this season.
“That’s the goal,” he said.
The Cavs were in the playoff conversation for the first few months last season before Varejao broke his wrist and missed the final 41 games. As has been the case in the past, Varejao may draw trade interest from other teams and it will be interesting to see if the Cavs hang on to a player with unique talents.
Irving, who had four wisdom teeth pulled last week, hit his first shot of the season, a 3-pointer, and scored 12 points in the first quarter as the Cavs opened a 31-24 lead.
Notes: Washington was just 8 of 32 on 3-pointers, and missed some big ones in the fourth. ... Browns rookie QB Brandon Weeden, a big Oklahoma City fan, and RB Trent Richardson, sat behind the Cavs’ bench and they got a huge ovation when shown on the giant scoreboard in the second quarter. They sat with Cavs owner Dan Gilbert in the second half. ... Before the game, Gilbert said he regrets guaranteeing the Cavs would win an NBA title before LeBron James, who left Cleveland as a free agent in 2010. “Looking back now, that probably was not the most brilliant thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Gilbert said.