It all ended with what looked like a slip.
For Kyrie Irving, it was devastating. His season was ended, and he sat on the floor holding his knee as the other nine players on the court moved on without him as the result of a collision with Warriors guard Klay Thompson in Game 1 of the Finals. He tried to get back on defense, but it was clear right then something was wrong.
All Irving could do was limp to the sidelines and head back to the locker room with the help of an athletic trainer as the Cavs lost that game and, ultimately, the series.
Right there, as Irving hobbled off not to return until late December, the Cavs' season changed. LeBron James was already carrying a large burden, but it grew once Irving was out. And when Irving was out, the writing was on the wall for the Cavs. No matter how great LeBron was as a solo act, no matter how hard Matthew Dellavedova played, not having Kyrie on the floor was a blow to the Cavaliers' title chances last season. LeBron wouldn't have posted an exhausting usage rate of 40.8 had Irving been the floor with him. As impressive as it was, LeBron dragging the Cavs like he did isn't a functional, realistic way to win a title.
Fast forward to this season and that's all changed. The Cavs are 8-0 in the playoffs and Irving has been crucial. To date, Irving is averaging 24.4 points per game while shooting 47.7 percent from the field and a scorching 53.8 percent from deep with a 27.9 percent usage rate. He's also averaging 5.5 assists per game and playing generally solid defense. Reggie Jackson, Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroder aren't exactly Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook or Tony Parker, but they are solid point guards. Irving, for the most part, defended well against all three.
Against the Pistons, he helped stifle Detroit's pick and roll attack by working to funnel everything to the middle. Against the Hawks, he followed the gameplan vs. Schroder and put in the effort needed to make Atlanta work. And if he got beat - which did happen a few teams - the effort to recover was there. There's no other way to explain this block of Schroder:
In regular season - where, to be fair, he seemed to be working his way back from the knee surgery needed to fix the injury he suffered in the June - he wasn't often the Irving who dropped 57 points on the Spurs or even the Irving who scored 23 points or blocked Curry in the Finals. He looked a bit uncomfortable on the court, and as a result, he forced things a bit. For Irving, that meant a lot of attacking in isolation and a lot of trying to use his insane handles to find his game.
Take this play, from a game in April where Irving went 5-23 from the field against the Hawks. Yes, it's late in the shot clock. But this is situation that Irving should - and has more often than not - succeed in.
His ability to score in isolation means he should be getting better shots than this even when it's late in the clock. And he when he doesn't, it's largely because he looks like he's forcing it. The looks of frustration after he clanks his shot serve as a symbol of his regular season. His numbers weren't quiet matching up his talent and he didn't always function in the way he need to. It's why some, even as the playoffs started, thought the Cavs were better off with Dellavedova instead of Irving.
Now, that Irving doesn't really exist anymore; Irving left him on ground in a heap much like he does his crossover victims. Instead of forcing things, he's wrecking the opposition in the flow of the Cavs' overall attack. Instead of stopping the ball and forcing things, he's picking his spots. When he does that - and manages his dribbling properly - he's really, really hard to defend. And even when he doesn't touch the ball, Irving is causing defenses problems. When he's working in conjunction with LeBron and Kevin Love, opposing defenses are doomed.
As the Cavs move forward, Irving is going to remain a major key. At the level he's playing at now, he offers something that no other Cavalier can. Even if he's not super pesky on defense and overdoes things at times, he gives LeBron someone to lean on and gives opposing defenses a two-headed monster to think about when they focus a little too much attention to LeBron and/or Love. No matter who the Cavs play if or when they make the Finals, this version of Irving presents problems for opposing teams that no other Cavalier can. Dellavedova, as useful as he is as an off-ball shooter and defender, can't replicate what Irving does in a meaningful way. There's a reason why James' burden has lessened in the playoffs as Irving (and Love) have emerged in what is the first real postseason run for both.
With where the Cavs are headed - likely to the Finals against the Warriors, Thunder or Spurs - they'll need this version of Irving. And if all goes well, Irving will be right in the midst of the action instead of watching it pass him by.