When I tuned into the early Wednesday matchup between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Denver Nuggets on Wednesday night, the same thing struck me that struck Portland Trail Blazers general manger Neil Olshey repeatedly last season: "Hey, J.J. Hickson looks pretty undersized at center, especially lining up across from Andrew Bynum. The Cavs should probably give Bynum the ball a lot." Clearly, Mike Brown and I share something more than ill-timed personal grooming habits, because Cleveland fed the 7-foot, 285-or-so-pound Bynum early and often against the 6-foot-9, 240-pound Hickson on Wednesday.
The big man started out slow coming off his best performance of the season, missing six of his first eight shots, but he turned it on in the second half to finish with 14 points and seven rebounds as part of a mammoth front-line effort — Tristan Thompson bulled his way to 17 points and a career-high 21 rebounds, and Anderson Varejao added 18 points and 13 rebounds off the bench — in the Cavs' 98-88 win over the visiting Nuggets. All that low-post feeding seemed to agree with Bynum, who even found himself rediscovering some of the on-court nastiness that cropped up quite a bit toward the end of his days in purple and gold. From Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal:
6. A few games ago, Bynum was running out [and] setting a number of high screens, which seemed in direct contrast of his real strengths. Now he’s focusing more on setting up in the post and going to work. He made just 2 of 8 shots in the first half, but clearly was inspired by the Nuggets’ coach and their bench.
7. “Too soft early in the game,” Bynum said. “Had to take me to get mad to play right.”
8. Bynum was clearly annoyed by J.J. Hickson, who was defending him most of the night. Hickson was giving up about three inches and 40 pounds to Bynum, who swatted Hickson for a flagrant foul in the third quarter. “The guy guarding me was an infant,” Bynum said.
9. He actually stole that line from C.J. Miles, who was hollering at the Nuggets all night, “They're babies! They can’t stop you!”
I mean, they could — again, a still-shaking-off-the-rust Bynum went 6 for 15 from the floor during his 20-plus minutes of floor time, with many of the misses coming on the sort of at-the-rim bunnies on which he feasted while a member of the Los Angeles Lakers — but going to him still felt like the right idea. Even when the shots weren't falling, you could sort of see the Cavaliers' offense looking more like the hoped-for ideal of the summer, when Cleveland signed Bynum to an incentive-laden two-year contract in the hope that he'd provide a low-post presence and added Jarrett Jack in the hope that his playmaking could help unleash Kyrie Irving as an off-ball weapon in the same way that it aided Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson last season with the Golden State Warriors.
One second-quarter possession in particular stood out — Bynum backing down Hickson to pivot his way into a pretty high-percentage lefty layup that missed, followed by Thompson crashing the offensive glass from the weak side to beat noted glass-cleaner Kenneth Faried for the board and kicking out to Jack, who reset atop the arc, spotted Irving sliding down to the left corner all alone and fired a cross-court pass for an open corner 3 by Kyrie that found the bottom of the net. Working inside out, taking advantage of the combination of size, skill and athleticism on the interior, removing responsibility from Kyrie to create everything, and getting a knockdown shooter a clean look ... it's the kind of thing we haven't seen much of from Cleveland, and it was a welcome sight.
Depending on where you sit, that attitude might be, too. While Bynum's latter days in L.A. were marked by a fair bit of petulance and criticism, they also showcased him as a supremely confident difference-maker capable of turning perceived slights into productive play ... and that seemed to come back around on Wednesday. More from Lloyd:
10. [Nuggets head coach Brian] Shaw was an assistant with the Lakers for much of Bynum’s time in Los Angeles. Shaw was complimentary of Bynum before the game, but clearly said something that irritated him Wednesday night.
11. “I think just BShaw and their bench pissed me off a little bit,” Bynum said. He was blocked in the third quarter by Timofey Mozgov, which apparently got the Nuggets’ bench barking. When Bynum made a short turnaround jumper a minute later, he glared at the Nuggets’ bench and nodded.
That sort of sneering swagger can be helpful, and infectious, and propulsive. Left unchecked, though, it can also verge into the unhelpful and dangerous:
Bynum's third-quarter flagrant-1 on Hickson wasn't an especially dirty play in and of itself — he appeared to get more arm than head/neck — but given the nature of their back-and-forth throughout the game, plus the nature of Bynum's post-game commentary, it also didn't seem accidental, and the result could have been worse. In a sense, then, the Cavaliers got perhaps the most complete vision of their free-agent acquisition on Wednesday — the returning post moves, footwork and desire to dominate on one hand, and the wild streak that can bleed over from competitive to reckless.
A Cavs team that entered this season with playoff aspirations needs the former; to get it, though, they might have to learn to live with the latter. That might come complete with some outbursts, comments and actions more commonly associated with the kind of kid Bynum says was checking him on Wednesday.
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