TORONTO -- “The last three years, it was just a game in the NBA.”
Friday was different, of course. It was the superstar-laden Cavs coming to town against the No. 1 team in the Eastern Conference in the Raptors and with Toronto’s fervent fan base selling out the Air Canada Centre to begin the weekend.
And for young players such as Thompson and Kyrie Irving who had played only on cellar dwellers up until this season, it was another chance to immerse themselves in the thrill of pulling out a win in a pressure-cooker environment.
Thompson, playing in his hometown, had his best game of the season with 21 points on 8-for-13 shooting (15 of them coming in the fourth quarter), 14 rebounds and two assists off the bench in the Cavs’ 105-91 win over Toronto. Irving, coming off his dominant 37-point night in New York, scored 13 of his 15 points in the second half while rounding out his stat line with six assists, four rebounds, two steals and a block to help extend the Cavs’ winning streak to six games.
Thompson, 23, and Irving, 22, are getting to live the NBA life that LeBron James has become accustomed to. While James’ Miami Heat teams ranked first in road attendance each of the past four seasons, here’s where the Cavs ranked during that time: 30th in 2010-11, 22nd in ’11-12, 25th in '12-13 and 15th last season.
This season, of course, it’s the Cavs that ranked No. 1 in road attendance per game through their first eight games away from The Q this season.
After the Toronto win, Irving couldn’t help but laugh at the change of circumstances when asked if he’s ever played with this type of spotlight on him in the NBA before.
“No, no, no,” Irving said with a smile. “This is by far the most consecutive sellouts that I’ve been a part of. We just have so many great players on our team and everybody wants their home team to win, and when we go on the road, every home team wants to beat us. That’s just the way it is. It’s packed out all the time. The fans are talking to you and talking crap from the sideline, and they want their team to win.
“You know, it’s fun. As a competitor, that’s what you want. And as a kid, for me, the last three years watching that on TV when Miami traveled everywhere, and now we get to be a part of that.”
For Irving, this experience has kind of made up for his lone season at Duke. The Blue Devils are perennially like this season’s Cavs in terms how much interest they generate wherever they go. But a foot injury limited him to just 11 games as a freshman, so he could only watch from the sideline for most of Duke’s 32-5 campaign when they trotted their No. 1 ranking into hostile road arenas.
“Yeah,” Irving said. “This is probably the closest thing, if not bigger. For me, it’s bigger. I mean, it’s my professional career. But the last time I had something like that was at Duke.”
The saying goes that pressure busts pipes, but it also makes diamonds. James marveled at how Irving and Thompson have responded to the brighter stage thus far.
“That’s what I love about the young guys that we have on our team,” James said after netting 24 points, 13 assists, seven rebounds and three steals of his own against Toronto. “They’re taking it all in and they’re not taking it for granted, and I think that’s the biggest part.”
James has had so much attention his entire career, he hardly knows what it’s like not to play in a big game.
It eventually shapes you as a player. You become impervious to the spectacle. It’s only an enhancement, not a distraction.
Play well and it will feel extra special. Play poorly and just wait for the next night because there will be that spotlight waiting for you again.
James Jones, a longtime teammate of James in Miami, seemed to have that happen to him. Coming into Friday, he got DNPs in 14 of the Cavs' 17 games. With Mike Miller out with a concussion, Jones got his chance against the Raptors and seized it, scoring eight points in 15 minutes of play.
“I know JJ is one of them,” James said about Jones when asked if the notion of a “prime-time player” really exists. “As crazy as it may sound, JJ is one of them. The bigger the occasion, JJ is ready. And it’s not just because we played in so many big games, but he’s always been ready.”
Who better than Jones to ask whether Irving and Thompson are indeed ready to show temerity while constantly being targeted?
“Without a doubt,” Jones said. “I think they actually enjoy embracing the challenge of being a contender. It’s a different mentality, a different mindset. Every team is coming to give them a shot. And so for young guys that are looking to get better and to be the elite players in this league, they need that competition to grow.
“They look forward to that type of atmosphere because it helps them be better players and they have the skill set. Now it’s just really getting the repetition and the confidence and having the success against the best teams. That’s the last key ingredient to their development.”