OK ... it's after one game for Cleveland and two for the Heat, but the Cavs and their fans will take it. Just like they'll take the 95-87 opening night win over the Boston Celtics. The Cavs beat a Celtics team playing its second game in as many nights with hustle and effort. The post-"the-player-who-left" era (as Gilbert continually referred to LeBron James) had a grand opening.
"I think we're the most popular team in Cleveland right now," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "Beating Miami and losing to the Cavs."
He's probably right. Fans actually shook Rivers' hand during the day Wednesday as he walked through Cleveland, a gesture Rivers seemed to enjoy.
Tuesday night's focus was on James playing his first game after taking his talents to South Beach. By midday Wednesday in downtown Cleveland, a banner of the city's skyline had replaced the one where "the player who left" used to hang. Put up by the Cleveland-based paint company Sherwin-Williams, it read: "Our home since 1866. Our pride forever."
It was a statement about the guy who left a city reeling and one of his former teammates perplexed. "I thought it was a joke," Shaquille O'Neal said when he heard of "The Decision."
"I thought he was coming back," said O'Neal, now a member of the Celtics. "When I got the e-mail that he was going to Miami, I said, 'Stop playing.'"
O'Neal's departure followed James', but it was not met with the same vitriol. When Shaq was introduced with the Boston starting lineup, Cleveland fans gave him a loud and rousing ovation.
That was just the beginning of a night when the Cavs crowd seemed to be telling its team that things were OK without James, and that they believed the team would be OK as well. Instead of being down, the sellout crowd was into things from the opening tip, and it was at its loudest in the final minutes when the Cavs turned an 82-82 game into an eight-point win.
"It was bananas out there," said guard Daniel Gibson.
Rivers was having none of the back-to-back-following-an-emotional win excuse. He merely said the Cavs were up to the challenge and his team was not. O'Neal and the rest of his teammates admitted they did not match the effort given by the Cavs.
"That's got to be our signature," said Gibson, who saw an 0 for 8 shooting start turn into a 16-point finish.
"You have to understand," said Boston's Paul Pierce, "this team is hungry. Everybody is against them and everybody is writing them off."
Prior to the tip, new Cavs coach Byron Scott spoke to the crowd and promised nothing but great effort every night. The fans got that -- and they got a vital one second when Anthony Parker made a key three to put the Cavs up 89-84.
With a second on the shot clock, Parker caught an inbounds pass, bent, looked and shot. The ball left his hand before the shot clock went off only because the shot clock might not have started when Parker caught the ball. It was home cooking, but that's what happens with home teams.
The Cavs took the lengthy second -- hey, perhaps it was 1.9 -- but were more proud of their overall work, which never wavered even though Boston was up 11 in the third quarter. Cleveland persevered, and because it did it won.
"I think they value that their true strength is playing together," said Boston's Kevin Garnett. "They play hard, and when you match that you find yourself in difficulty. When you play together, you dilute the responsibility."
"They're better than us right now," Rivers said. "They beat us. You're as good as your last game. They're going to play hard every night. I think that's what the Cleveland fans want to see. This is blue-collar town. I think this team will fit them very well. I told Byron they remind me of the heart and hustle team I had in Orlando. We were only 41-41 but people loved watching them play."
The Cavs greeted the start of a new season with no references to the player who left in the building. "It's a whole new ballgame, Cavaliers fans," bellowed the courtside cheerleader.
A new ballgame that does not include 60-some-win seasons, nor the reigning MVP. But the team believes it also might include more wins than most are expecting. Still ... if Rivers' comparison to a .500 team is right, the challenge for the team and its fans will be sustaining what was present on opening night.
Moon quipped that "we're not going to go 82-0," then laughed when he was reminded Dwyane Wade said the same thing after the Heat lost the first game to the Celtics.
By season's end, the Cavs should not have as many wins as the Heat. Talent, after all, wins in the long run. But for one night, a beleaguered town could smile about its team.
Because on opening night, that team did it proud.