EAST LANSING, Mich. — As the Cleveland Cavaliers packed their bags inside the Michigan State locker room at the Breslin Center, the conversation centered on a fictional five-on-five basketball game, with players chiming in about who they would pick to build a squad capable of taking down a behemoth featuring Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan.
Tristan Thompson was just getting out of the shower so he didn’t participate.
But given the confidence he has shown in his team over the last few weeks, it wouldn’t have been a surprise to hear him shout George Hill, Rodney Hood, Cedi Osman, Kevin Love and his own name from across the room.
OK, I’m being facetious. Thompson, however is not. At least, not when he talks about the Cavaliers chances this season.
“We’re a playoff team. That’s realistic,” Thompson said following the preseason finale on Friday night. “Everyone that says playoffs is overachieving doesn’t know our squad and doesn’t believe in our squad. For us, we’re a playoff team. We just have to go out there, be ourself and prove the naysayers wrong, which we will.”
It’s the second time in the last few weeks that Thompson has made an audacious declaration. His comments about the Cavaliers still being the team to beat in the East led to a war of words with the Celtics and 76ers — two teams expected to climb to the top of the conference after LeBron bolted for Los Angeles.
“Until you take us down from that, teams ain’t got much to say,” Thompson said in September, after counting the conference title banners on the wall inside Cleveland Clinic Courts. “Boston, Philly, they ain’t got much to say. Boston had home court in Game 7 and lost. Philly, you guys almost got swept. Toronto — we already know that story. So, until someone takes us down, there’s not much they can really say.”
The preseason — weeks filled with fun, jokes, light-hearted conversations, enthusiasm and optimism — is officially over. Now the real challenge begins.
Next up: A trip to Toronto for the regular season tipoff on Wednesday against the retooled Raptors.
In past years, the Cavaliers turned the Air Canada Centre into their playground, booting the Raptors out of the playoffs three straight years and forcing them to make sweeping changes, including the firing of Coach of the Year Dwane Casey.
But James played a significant role in that. He’s not in Cleveland anymore. So this year is supposed to be different. Or some would say as much.
Just not Thompson.
“We know what we can do here,” Thompson said. “I think for us it’s kind of building an identity and what we need to do to be effective. And for us, that’s get up and down and play a high-octane offense, play fast, be athletic and be young. I think that’s what we realize that’s what we have to do and we see in practice.
“I think it was good for us playing against that Indiana team because that’s a team that pushes it and plays at a high pace. We kind of have to have their mentality, what they had last year — be the underdogs and people that are not taken serious, but took the NBA by storm and came out right away and threw the first punch. They earned their respect throughout the league.”
The Cavs, written off by many, including oddsmakers, will get their chance soon. Toronto is one of the favorites in the East now that they’ve added Kawhi Leonard and souped up their offense with a new system and head coach. Then comes a matchup with Minnesota — a playoff team from last year. Detroit, Indiana and Denver are also on the schedule in the first eight games.
It’s hard to know if the Cavs are truly ready — and not just because they are entering their first season without James since 2014.
The preseason was bumpy. The only glimpse of the full roster came in the opener against Boston.
After that, Lue was forced to juggle his lineup while the team dealt with minor injuries and players resting. Heck, Channing Frye and David Nwaba each played power forward against the Pistons on Friday. That’s pretty telling.
Love played all of 17 minutes before a sore foot turned him into a spectator for the final three games. Hood was held out against Indiana. Osman, the starting small forward, left the third game early with an ankle injury and watched from the bench Friday night. Larry Nance Jr. suffered a sprained ankle during Thursday’s practice and he couldn’t play against Detroit. Nwaba returned after a two-game absence. And JR Smith only played in two games.
While that seems to make it difficult to get a gauge on this new-look team, Lue feels he has enough answers.
“I know what I’ve got. We’ll be alright,” he said.
That seems to be the common refrain these days. Only time will tell.
Thompson’s latest boast will surely make the rounds. But here’s the thing: Thompson isn’t doing this to create headlines. He’s not doing it to ignite a rivalry with other East squads. He’s doing it for his team. He’s doing it because he truly believes it and wants other to as well.
“It’s for everyone — players, coaches, staff, front office,” Thompson said. “Whoever feels like it’s directed to them it’s directed to them. If you feel like these quotes are towards you then they might be towards you. I feel like I have that confidence in my teammates and as one of the leaders on this team I feel like expressing it and I believe it.”
One of Cleveland’s veterans, armed with plenty of championship-mettle and hardened by drama-filled seasons, Thompson has become a vocal leader.
Thompson said Love, another one of Cleveland’s captains, believes the same — even if he hasn’t said it yet.
Love’s leadership style is different. He leads by example and players have seen his sweat-filled workouts backed up by dominant practice sessions. They watched him pour in 17 points in his only preseason game. Soon, they will see him pile up double-double on a nightly basis. That’s the Cavs’ hope anyway.
That’s one way to lead. Then there’s Thompson. The polar opposite.
“I’m just a little more vocal than him,” Thompson said. “I do a little more chirping.”