The most ominous glimpse of what is to come this season took place in a blink -- a pass to LeBron James that he instantly volleyballed to the far side of the basket while Shaquille O'Neal spun out of the post and behind his defender to bank in the alley-oop layup. "That was just two basketball players making a read,'' said James after he made his debut with his large and elder sidekick. "For the first game I thought we played pretty well as a team, and me and Shaq definitely played pretty well together. It shouldn't be hard for the both of us -- we both know how to play and we both know how to win.''
Win they did Tuesday, 92-87 over the visiting Charlotte Bobcats (RECAP | BOX SCORE) , though neither LeBron nor Shaq played past halftime. The preseason opener was an exposition of the Cavs' improved depth, even though Delonte West -- last year's starter at shooting guard -- was held out out of the game at the last minute by GM Danny Ferry as he struggles to deal with the issues following his Sept. 17 arrest on weapons charges.
"If Delonte doesn't play, they've got Anthony Parker,'' said Bobcats coach Larry Brown with envy. "If Shaq doesn't play, they've got [former All-Star center Zydrunas] Ilgauskas. If LeBron doesn't play, you've got God.''
So good is LeBron that he dunked and otherwise scored his 15 points in 15 first-half minutes while rarely accelerating past second gear. Shaq finished with six points (2 for 5), three rebounds and a blocked shot in 16 minutes.
"I'm still learning the offense and how to play with everybody, but come the opening of the season I'll be ready and we'll be ready,'' said O'Neal. "I'm not looking to take 20 to 30 shots a game.''
The fans here in Cleveland had the best perspective. Thousands of them stayed home to leave the Quicken Loans Arena half-empty (or half-full, depending on your perspective) in stark demonstration of their understanding that nothing memorable would happen here. And of course they were right. Before the game Cleveland coach Mike Brown was asked if he could remember any NBA preseason games from several years back.
He thought about this and said, "No.''
The real opening night will take place later this month when the rival Celtics arrive to test the new marriage of Shaq and LeBron. In the meantime there were momentary images of what is to come. Occasionally the two stars would set up on the same side of the floor, with Shaq coming out to set a screen that sprung LeBron for a drive through the sparsely-defended paint.
"You can see that on a couple of LeBron's drives, where people are concerned with the spacing out there, that if you take your body off Shaq, LeBron's going to make the pass and it's going to be a dunk or a foul,'' Brown said.
"It's very tough to navigate through a screen by him,'' agreed James, "but at the same time we don't want him out on the floor too much. We want him in the interior where he's going to do a lot of his work.''
Another time a pass from LeBron was relayed by Shaq as if he were a 325-pound second baseman turning the double play; but power forward Anderson Varejao was unable to field the assist near the basket as Shaq broke into laughter.
"I don't think he's really used to that,'' said Shaq of his snap pass to Varejao. "I've been telling him all preseason, 'I might not be looking at you but I see you.' I take pride in trying to be one of the best passing big men in the game.''
"Andy definitely wasn't ready for that one,'' said James. "It was a good pass too.''