This year has been a tumultuous one for Kyrie Irving. After missing 24 games to start the regular season, he struggled with inconsistency upon returning to the lineup. While his numbers and impact on the Cavaliers were still largely positive, he didn't quite measure up to the precedent he set for himself last season.
Playing with LeBron James means increased scrutiny. James is out of this world talented, and whenever his teams come up short, a close look at what went wrong very rarely points in his direction. There is added pressure when James decides to attach his legacy to you over Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh over the next few years. If your shot is off for a few games, it's rarely dismissed as a slump; it's a fatal flaw and proof that you can't play next to LeBron.
But as we've seen time and time again, Irving steps up his game when he's on the big stage. Whether it be nationally televised games, his play with Team USA, the All-Star Game (to a lesser extent), or in the playoffs last season while battling through injuries. Well-rested, healthy and playing the best basketball we've seen from him, Kyrie Irving is making a name for himself in these playoffs and winning head-to-head matchups with the point guards he's been compared to.
Twice in the playoff career of LeBron James has he not been the leading scorer in a playoff series for his team. The first came in the 2011 NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks, the second came in this year's first round against the Detroit Pistons. Irving became the first teammate to outscore LeBron while he was playing well. Averaging 24.7 points and 5.4 assists per game in the playoffs on 49.4 percent shooting from the floor and 52.7 percent from three, Irving has been untouchable on the offensive side of the floor.
The rotations used by Tyronn Lue have also made sure that Irving remains in the best possible position to succeed. By closing out quarters with Irving, Love and shooters, it provides Irving room to operate in space and the chemistry with Love has been much better so far. The Cavs frequently have been able to cut into a deficit or build upon a lead with James getting valuable rest against the other team's starters. Then James will check in--mostly with the Cavs' bench--against the opposition's bench and deliver a devastating blow.
Lue being able to deploy wave after wave of effective lineups would not have been possible if Irving didn't elevate his play and show that he is capable of running the team with James on the bench.The Cavs have an impressive +11.6 net rating with Irving on the floor in the playoffs and an eye-popping +22.6 net rating when he sits, thanks largely in part to James and the bench mob. Irving being able to run the team, maintain or build upon leads, and on more than one occasion, "hit reset," as James called his ability to evaporate a lead on his own. On top of that, Irving is winning the head-to-head matchups against a solid group of point guards.
Heading into Game 1 against the Toronto Raptors, a common sentiment throughout the various series previews was that going against Irving would be a breath of fresh air for Kyle Lowry. After scoring 25, 36 and 35 points respectively in his last three games, it appeared as though Lowry had turned a corner and would be able to keep that going against Irving and the Cavs.
While it was only one game, Irving answered the bell. Lowry was held to eight points on 4-14 shooting, his second-lowest point total in the postseason. Irving poured in 27 points and five assists on 11-17 shooting. He also added two steals and two blocks for good measure. The point guard matchup was supposed to be one of the few areas where the Raptors hadan advantage in this series. If Irving doesn't allow that to happen, then any chance of making this series competitive goes out the window.
It remains to be seen exactly what Kyrie Irving will have to do to change the perceptions that have followed him throughout his career. His defense has admittedly been uneven, and was worse this season than last, but he has stepped it up on both ends of the floor so far in the playoffs. The bottom line is that Irving has always had a positive impact on the team, and once again that impact is greater when it matters. At the end of the day, maybe that's all that really matters.
One thing is for sure, if he continues this play, the Cavs are not going to go down without one hell of a fight in the playoffs.