Expectations were already high for the Cavaliers this season. Once Andrew Bynum stripped off his warm-ups and stepped on the floor, they rose to another level.
Cleveland could contend again.
Anderson Varejao's basket with 28 seconds left — off an assist from Kyrie Irving — sent the Cavs to a 98-94 win on Wednesday night over the remodeled Brooklyn Nets in coach Mike Brown's first game back with Cleveland.
But it was the return of Bynum, the massive 7-foot center, after a 17-month layoff that gave the Cavs a boost that could propel them for months.
Bynum, who didn't play a single second for Philadelphia last season because of knee injuries, played in his first NBA game since May 21, 2012. Bynum only played eight minutes, but it was long enough for the Cavs to get a glimpse of the team they could be.
"It's a big body out there blocking shots," Cavs guard Dion Waiters said. "He changed the game. He changed the momentum. I'm just glad he's back out there doing what he loves to do."
Varejao's jumper gave the Cavs a 93-91 lead, and Irving, who finished with 15 points, 9 assists and 7 rebounds, made four free throws in the final 14 seconds to help Cleveland put it away.
Brook Lopez scored 21 and Paul Pierce scored 17 in his first game for the Nets, who were without coach Jason Kidd as he serves a two-game suspension for a driving-under-the-influence conviction. Kevin Garnett, another of Brooklyn's new pieces, had 10 rebounds. But the Nets, who made a blockbuster trade last summer and are over $100 million in payroll as they seek a title, didn't make enough plays down the stretch and dropped their long-awaited opener.
"Everyone has to be patient," Garnett said. "It's not just because you assemble guys and things are going to just voila. We're not a perfect team by far, but we are a hard working team. We're a team with no excuses."
Tristan Thompson led the Cavs with 18 points and guard Jarrett Jack scored 12 — all in the first half when Irving got into foul trouble.
After Irving made two free throws with 5.9 seconds to go, Pierce made a 3-pointer to pull the Nets within 97-94. But Varejao dropped a foul shot to give Brown his first win in his second stint with Cleveland. Brown was fired following the 2010 season, but he's back and his return should help the Cavaliers put three miserable seasons behind them.
Of course, having Irving helps, too.
The All-Star guard was in early foul trouble and played just 11 minutes in the first half. But he was on the floor when it mattered most, and after dribbling through traffic for several seconds with the score tied at 91-91, he alertly found Varejao near the free-throw line for his critical jumper.
Bynum's appearance was a mild surprise. He had been making strides in practice as he recovers knee surgeries, but only got medical clearance to play a few hours before the game. The two-time All-Star, who signed a two-year, $24 million free agent contract with Cleveland in July, came off the bench with 3:40 left in the first quarter.
He checked in to a rousing ovation from Cleveland fans, many of whom wondered if they would ever see him play because of his well-chronicled knee issues. But the big man moved without any limitations and finished with three points, three rebounds, two assists and one block in eight minutes.
"It was kind of like riding a bike," he said. "I don't think I've accomplished anything yet."
The Nets believe they can make a title run this year, but it could take some time for their talented lineup to gel.
Deron Williams played just 22 minutes as he continues to recover from a sprained ankle, and Brooklyn missed him being on the floor in the final minutes.
"Obviously it hurts but we have to go back and look at the reason why we lost this game," Pierce said. "Throughout the course of the season we have to understand it's always going to be about the little things. To be a championship team, you have to clean those things up."
NOTES: Cavs rookie F Anthony Bennett, the No. 1 overall pick in this year's draft, missed all five shots from the field. He finished with two points and five rebounds in 15 minutes. .... While Kidd serves his suspension, assistant coach Joe Prunty is assuming head duties. ... Williams wasn't surprised by his limited minutes, but he did think he would play in the fourth. "It's tough to get into a rhythm when you're limited," he said. ... As punishment for failing to bring donuts to a recent practice, Bennett and Cleveland's other rookies were forced to wear brightly colored outfits to the arena. Bennett had to wear a purple fedora and vest. "You look like Cedric the Entertainer," Thompson told him. ... Nets F Andrei Kirilenko sat out with back spasms but could play in the home opener against Miami on Friday.