LeBron James, left, and Kyrie Irving went their separate ways in the offseason. Tonight they meet again ... as opponents.
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INDEPENDENCE — World-renowned team physician — and backup shooting guard — Dr. J.R. Smith fully expects LeBron James to play tonight at Quicken Loans Arena when the Cavaliers host former teammate Kyrie Irving and the Boston Celtics in the first NBA game of the regular season.
“He gonna go, trust me on that,” Smith said Monday following practice. “I don’t care what he got to do. He gonna play. He loves the game. ... Since he was 8 years old and he started playing, he’s never missed the first game. I’m prepared for him to play.”
The 32-year-old James, who is recovering from a sprained left ankle, went through about 25 percent of a practice Sunday, which was the organization’s plan. All the Cavs did Monday was go over some offensive and defensive sets, and the four-time league MVP participated with the first team during those drills.
James also took part in a spirited 3-point shooting drill with former Celtics Isaiah Thomas, who is currently injured, and Jae Crowder, as well as new teammate Jeff Green following practice.
The small forward, who did not speak with the media, appeared to be in excellent spirits and was moving without any trace of a limp. If he doesn’t play tonight, Smith will move into the starting lineup, coach Tyronn Lue said.
“I really don’t know,” Lue said when asked if James would play, though he later added he’s preparing as if his superstar will. “It depends on how he feels.”
James has never missed a season opener in 14 previous NBA seasons. Add Irving’s first return to Cleveland since requesting a trade from the organization he helped to three straight NBA Finals — the point guard hit the game-winning 3-pointer in Game 7 vs. Golden State in 2016 — and it’s hard to envision James not playing.
Adding to the intrigue, the Cavs plan to honor Irving, who is with a revamped Celtics team that had a better regular-season record than the Cavs last season but lost to Cleveland in five games in the Eastern Conference finals, with a video tribute tonight.
Irving spent the first six years of his NBA career with the Cavs, who drafted him with the No. 1 pick in 2011, including the last three with James back in Cleveland.
“He was a great player when he was here,” Smith said when asked about the video. “He was a good teammate. He helped us win a championship. I think it will be good.”
How the fans will react is a different story, especially since Irving appeared to be throwing shade on Cleveland when he recently said he was now in a “real, live sports city.”
Irving also wanted out of Cleveland because he wanted to be his team’s leader, which wasn’t going to happen with James still the most dominant player in the game.
“We’ve got the best fans in the world,” Lue said. “They’re going to do whatever they see best. Whatever decision they make, that’s the right one. They’ve been behind me three straight years since I’ve been here. They’ve always made the right decisions. Whatever they decide to do, I embrace whatever they do.”
The task of defending Irving initially will fall on new Cavs point guard Derrick Rose, with Iman Shumpert and Smith likely to get their shots as well.
“My job is to come in and be the best Derrick Rose I can be,” Rose said. “Like I said before I came here, Kyrie is a unique player, a helluva player. I can’t be caught up in the matchups.”
The colorful Smith appeared to take a little stab at Irving, who was known for sometimes dominating the ball in Cleveland, when asked how to defend his former teammate.
“It will be extremely difficult,” he said. “You’ve just got to put bodies in front of him. Hopefully, he dribbles so much he gets tired. That’s pretty much all you can do.”
It all will make for an extremely festive atmosphere at the 8 p.m. game, which will be televised nationally on TNT and feature a halftime performance by R&B band Bell Biv DeVoe.
In a slightly less juicy storyline, the Celtics and Cavs are much different teams than the clubs that met in the 2017 conference finals.
Besides Irving, Boston added All-Star small forward Gordon Hayward in free agency and talented rookie Jason Tatum, who is expected to start at power forward, with the No. 3 pick in the draft. The Celtics, however, lost point guard Thomas, shooting guard Avery Bradley, forwards Crowder and Kelly Olynyk and center Amir Johnson.
“Did they lose defensive presence in Crowder?” Lue asked. “They lose Amir Johnson, they lose Avery Bradley. It’s going to be interesting to see how they play throughout the course of the season.”
That also holds true for the Cavs, who have eight new faces in Crowder, Thomas, Rose, Green, Dwyane Wade, Jose Calderon, Ante Zizic and Cedi Osman.
“I hope quick, but I really don’t know,” Lue said when asked how his team would come together. “We have a lot of talent, a lot of versatility, a lot of guys that can do multiple things.
“I don’t know how long it’s going to take, but I hope we jell pretty quick. I can’t guess that, but we have some cerebral guys, some guys that understand the game. They know how to play the game. I don’t think it’s going to take as long as people think.”
- Veteran center Kendrick Perkins, cut by the Cavs in training camp, has reached a deal to play for the Canton Charge, Cleveland’s G League affiliate. If things don’t work out for the 32-year-old Perkins in his comeback attempt as a player, he has a standing job offer from Lue to join the organization in a coaching capacity.
- Sean Peebles (pronounced “pebbles”) will serve as the public address announcer at The Q, replacing Olivier Sedra, who took the same job with the Brooklyn Nets. Peebles had been the PA announcer for the G League’s Erie BayHawks since 2010.
- The Nike LeBron 15 tennis shoe goes on sale today. It’s available on Nike.com for $185.