CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Kemba Walker admits there’s always a little extra incentive when he goes up against Kyrie Irving.
Walker won the duel with his longtime friend on tonight, scoring 23 points and handing out seven assists to help the Bobcats beat the Cleveland Cavaliers 90-84 in their home opener, giving new coach Steve Clifford his first win.
“I’ve known Kyrie for a while and his dad is from my neighborhood,” said Walker, a Bronx, N.Y. native. “Seeing him growing up playing basketball, we are just longtime friends. So when I play against him it’s a lot of fun.”
Walker hit a 3-pointer over Irving with 58 seconds left to break a tie.
The Cavaliers had two chances to tie, but Josh McRoberts came up with a steal and Jarrett Jack had an air-ball on a 3-pointer with 12 seconds left.
Gerald Henderson added two free throws in the final 11 seconds to make it a two-possession game and help seal the win.
“Coach puts me in great position to make plays like that and if he’s going to put me in that position I have to come up big,” Walker said of his go-ahead 3-pointer.
Bismack Biyombo, who filled in for injured center Al Jefferson, came up big for Charlotte scoring 11 points on 5-of-6 shooting and grabbing 10 rebounds.
CJ Miles had 22 points, and Tristan Thompson added 21 for the Cavaliers.
Irving had 16 points on 7-of-17 shooting, but was held to one point in the fourth quarter. He attempted only three shots in the fourth and missed them all. The Bobcats limited the Cavaliers to 38 percent shooting.
“Our second half defense was much better, particularly on Irving,” Clifford said.
Cavaliers coach Mike Brown was frustrated over his team’s lack of mental focus and execution. At least three times a pass sailed through the hands of a Cavalier player and out of bounds for a turnover.
“Right now it’s not good, especially to start the game and we are getting too many ‘My bads,’” Brown said. “And when you get two or three ‘My bads’ from each individual, it adds up. Guys don’t understand. You can say ‘My bad’ but we want to be a championship level team and we can’t have 15 ‘My bads’ in the first half.”
The Cavaliers tied the game twice in the fourth quarter but could never get over the hump and take the lead.
“I think sometimes you dig in that hole and expend so much energy trying to get out of it, and I don’t want say we’re tired, but you don’t want to put yourself in that position where you battle back and then you’re in a real dogfight,” Miles said.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist finished with 15 points and six rebounds for the Bobcats.
The Bobcats led throughout the first half and was up 54-49 behind 12 points from Walker and eight apiece from rookie Cody Zeller and reserve Ramon Sessions.
Zeller, the No. 4 overall pick in the draft, outplayed No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett in his first game in front of the home crowd.
The 7-footer showed terrific athleticism getting up and down the court and knocked down two mid-range jumpers while finishing with nine points and five rebounds.
Bennett failed to score in 12 minutes and had four fouls.
Zeller got a chance to guard his older brother Tyler and even deflected one of his shots.
The Bobcats played without Jefferson, their top free agent acquisition this offseason. The 6-10 center re-aggravated his ankle in Charlotte’s loss at Houston on Wednesday night.
Clifford said Jefferson will be reevaluated over the weekend.
“It’s significant,” Clifford said of having to play without Jefferson. “He’s our best offensive player. I don’t want to go crazy, but he’s of the two or three best low post scorers in the league.”
Jefferson’s absence meant the Bobcats had to change their style of play using more pick and rolls instead of pounding the ball into the low post.
However, Biyombo’s play helped the home crowd forget about Jefferson’s absence for at least one night.
“He rebounded the ball well and made a couple of big plays,” Clifford said of Biyombo. “That’s what he has to do and be consistent with it. He has the ability. He has the ability to play with the same intensity every night. If he does that, he can rebound the ball and be a good team defender.”
NOTES: Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera took in the game from courtside. ... Walker has scored in double digits in 26 of his last 27 games dating to last season. ... The Bobcats have won their last four home games dating to last season.