Following Cleveland’s final practice before a season opener against Boston with playoff-level hype, Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue still wasn’t sure if LeBron James was playing Tuesday. J.R. Smith knows. “Oh, he’s gonna go,” Smith said of his celebrated teammate. “He’s gonna go, trust me that. I don’t care what he’s gotta do, he’s gonna play.”
While Smith may be giving James the green light, Lue and other team officials remained unsure of James’ status for the game against the Celtics and former Cavs guard Kyrie Irving, whose ballyhooed return to Cleveland is expected to be part homecoming, part hate-fest.
James didn’t speak to reporters following Monday’s practice, but the three-time champion was in a playful mood while engaging in a competitive outside shooting contest with teammates Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and Jeff Green.
James has been slowed by a sprained left ankle suffered in practice on Sept. 27. He played in only one of Cleveland’s five exhibition games, and his absence has kept a starting lineup that now includes Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose from getting much floor time together.
The 32-year-old James hasn’t missed an opener in his previous 14 seasons, and it would be hard to imagine sitting this one out given the attention with Irving coming back following this summer’s blockbuster trade between the teams _ and the All-Star guard’s recent swipe at Cleveland.
Just so he’s protected, Lue has made a contingency lineup in case James doesn’t play. Smith will take his spot in the Cavs’ “B” lineup.
Lue has said for days that he doesn’t know for sure if James will be ready.
“You know I never hide stuff from you guys,” Lue said when pressed about his superstar’s availability. “I really don’t know, I mean, just depends on how he feels after today. … I’m preparing that he is (playing).”
Smith, who is beginning his third full season with Cleveland, knows it will take a lot more than a sore ankle to keep James off the floor.
“Just because he loves the game,” he said. “We were talking about it, he’s never missed, since he was 8 years old and he started playing, he’s never missed a first game. I’m preparing for him to play.”
The Cavaliers have struggled mightily when James has been out of the lineup, losing 11 straight regular-season games and going 4-23 without him since 2014.
With a revamped roster and more offensive options than ever, Lue believes the Cavs are more equipped to compete when James is on the bench.
“We’ll be a lot better off,” he said. “I think we got a lot of different pieces. We’re deeper. A lot of versatile players. A lot of different lineups we can play. So, it will be different but I think we have a better chance.”
Irving spent six seasons with Cleveland but left on shaky terms.
His demand to be traded this summer rankled some Cavaliers fans, and he created a larger divide last week when he described Boston as a “real, live sports city.”
That didn’t sit well with many Cleveland residents, and he’s certain to get an earful Tuesday night.
The Cavaliers plan to honor Irving, who made the biggest shot in franchise history, with a video tribute at some point during the game. Irving’s 3-pointer in the waning moments of Game 7 in 2016 lifted Cleveland to the city’s first championship since 1964.
Lue wasn’t sure what else Irving should expect from the fired-up, sellout crowd.
“We’ve got the best fans in the world and they’re going to do whatever they see best,” he said. “Whatever decision they make, that’s the right one. Because they’ve been behind us for three straight years, since I’ve been here, they’ve always made the right decisions. So whatever they decide to do, I embrace whatever they do.”