CLEVELAND (AP) — Anderson Varejao was already having the most prolific rebounding game of his career when he looked at the scoreboard and noticed he was close to his first triple-double.
One point, one assist was all he needed.
“I was like, ‘Whoa, I wish I had a little bit more time,'” he said with a smile.
On a night when Cleveland unveiled its backcourt of the future, Varejao did a little bit of everything for the Cavaliers, who blew a 16-point lead in the second half before holding on and beating the short-handed Washington Wizards 94-84 on Tuesday night in the first game on the NBA schedule.
Playing his first home game after missing the final 41 last season with a broken wrist, Varejao had a career-high 23 rebounds. Kyrie Irving scored 29 points and rookie Dion Waiters added 17 for the Cavs, who needed big plays from Irving and Varejao in the final minutes to hold off the Wizards.
Varejao, the Cavs’ 6-foot-11 frizzy-haired Brazilian bundle of energy, added nine points and had a career-high nine assists, two setting up dunks by Tristan Thompson in the last two minutes.
Irving, who typically dishes during the game, handed his teammate a big compliment afterward.
“It’s the greatest feeling in the world just having somebody that you know what you’re going to get from them every single night,” Irving said of Varejao. “He almost had a triple-double, that’s typical Andy.”
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 and the Wizards missed him badly as rookie guard Bradley Beal and AJ Price combined to shoot 4 of 21.
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, who is out with plantar fasciitis in his left foot, on the court.
“That wasn’t the team I’ve seen the last four weeks,” Wittman said. “I watched them do things tonight that I didn’t ever see these guys do. They (Cavaliers) dictated the tempo, which I thought was key. We can’t get beat up on the boards like we did (54-39) or shoot free throws like we did (12 of 20) and have a realistic chance to win.”
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 by the Cavs. Waiters didn’t start a game at Syracuse, but 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, combining for 46 points and eight rebounds. But the duo made enough mistakes to keep Scott from giving them too much freedom.
“Dion is starting to understand what we’re doing,” said Scott, who has been demanding of Waiters during training camp and the exhibition season. “I thought he did a good job.”
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.
“I told Kyrie at the eight-minute mark that we have two timeouts left,” Scott said. “He patted me on the leg and said, ‘Don’t worry about it Coach, I got it.'”
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 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.
Scott was thrilled with the way his young team — with an average age of 24.9 years — responded down the stretch.
“They showed a lot of heart,” he said. “They showed a lot of guts.”
Notes: According to the Cavs, Varejao is the first player to get at least nine points, 23 rebounds and nine assists in a season opener since Wilt Chamberlain in 1967. … Thompson finished with five assists. He had just 27 last season. … Washington was only 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.
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