In the midst of some epic tanking, the 2011-2012 Cleveland Cavaliers found themselves on a March road trip out west that promised to be brutal. Four games on the road against the Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets, Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets in the midst of a five game losing streak seemed like a recipe for sadness. It started off just like you would expect with a 109-100 loss in Salt Lake City. Things took a turn for the miraculous with a game that will be featured later on in this series that involved the Cavaliers winning in Denver. Unfortunately, the Oklahoma City Thunder were up next. To put it mildly, the Thunder are a really good home team. Their fans are excellent, and their players are really good; the team had a 14 game home winning streak heading into this game. In Conrad's game preview, he predicted the Cavs would lose 118-84. So of course the Cavaliers pulled off the shocking upset, with a 96-90 final score. Kyrie Irving provided his typical late-game heroics, but in a little bit of a different flavor.One of the more consistent (only?) criticisms of Kyrie Irving's offensive game is that he is allegedly not a gifted passer, and a score-first point guard who doesn't make his teammates better. He looks for his own shot but can't create for others. Alright. That analysis is so ridiculously wrong that it was hard for me to actually write it, and this game serves as a pretty good illustration why. Irving was having a bit of a quiet fourth quarter before a three-play sequence sealed things for Cleveland. First, Kyrie and Jamison executed a pick an roll that saw OKC force Kyrie way to his left with the ball. Kyrie got by the help defender pushing him out wide before cutting back toward the lane, splitting two Thunder players as he did it. When the (fourth!) Thunder player came over to help and protect the left side of the rim, Kyrie just let his momentum keep carrying him right and made a reverse right handed layup. It was pretty much amazing. The next time down the court, Irving did it again, this time without needing the pick and roll. With the Cavaliers up 86-85 and Russell Westbrook on him, he got to the lane with ease. It happened so fast, and the Cavaliers had such good spacing, that no one could even come over to the protect the rim.
So how does this help advance the argument that Kyrie isn't a selfish scorer only interested in getting his own buckets? Because although he had been on the court for 32 minutes prior to putting the Cavaliers on his back, those two layups were his 11th and 12th shot attempts of the game. And because of what came next. With the Cavaliers now up 88-85 and with a real chance to just about put the game away, Irving again got into the lane. The Thunder finally rotated effectively, and it looked like Kyrie was going to have to either put up an awkward shot while his momentum carried him left, or turn it over. Instead, he found a cutting Antawn Jamison who laid the ball in with ease. It was Irving's 12th assist of the game.
Irving slices up the Thunder defense! (via NBA)
Here is a great example of everything ridiculously amazing about Kyrie Irving. Even Ryan Hollins couldn't mess it up. Irving can read a defense, he has ridiculous handles, and he knows where his teammates are going to be, and he can deliver the ball because, yes, he is an excellent passer. But here is the thing that Kyrie knows: he is a better scorer than anyone that the Cavaliers could put on the court with him last year. And it wasn't close. Give Kyrie a playmaker or two, and he will be happy to set them up and get them baskets. But Irving wants to win, and he wants the team to be efficient. More often than not, that means he is taking the most active role in putting the ball in the basket, especially late in games.
Other interesting things about this game:
The Cavs finished this game by going incredibly small, and Irving credited the lineup with helping him get to the basket. Irving was joined by Daniel Gibson, Anthony Parker, Alonzo Gee, and Antawn Jamison. I think its pretty obvious that the Miami Heat really learned from studying this game and it inspired them to go small in the Finals. In all seriousness, it makes sense to go small against OKC. Perkins and Ibaka generally aren't scoring options, and Durant doesn't really post up. It hurts you when you try and protect the basket when Harden, Westbrook and Durant drive the lane, but they have a tendency to settle for jumpers on occasion.
Somehow, Anthony Parker was a +10 in this game.
This game came shortly before the trade deadline, and was one of the last times Ramon Sessions played for the Cavs. He was not on the floor at the end of the game.