The Cleveland Cavaliers entered Game 2 of the 2016 NBA Finals with a daunting task, but a tremendous opportunity. A win would inject life into a series most observers thought over before it started, give the Cavs homecourt advantage, and perhaps put the Golden State Warriors on their heels. Lose, though, and the margin for error became close to nil. The weight of it all fell on the shoulders of LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. James, because it comes with the territory. Irving, because he asked for it.
Mind you, he didn’t do it by openly boasting of his skill. He didn’t call the Warriors out for their arrogance, or loudly proclaim that the results were on him. The burden fell on him because he became the secondary creator next to LeBron. He played like a shooting guard, launching shot after shot with an assist or two sprinkled in. The burden fell on him because even as he became friends with Kevin Love off the court, he never developed the pick and pop rapport many envisioned. If you listen to the Cavs ‘coach, Tyronn Lue, you know Irving was doing his job. He even told President Obama as much once the season was over. All the same, the Cavs needed his best.
Biggest game of Kyrie Irving's career in under three hours.— David Zavac (@DavidZavac) June 5, 2016
Irving’s final line in a 110-77 Golden State beatdown of his team: 10 points on 14 shots, three turnovers, and one assist. For the first time, it was possible that Kyrie Irving’s best wasn’t going to be good enough. His team’s before LeBron James’ return hadn’t achieved anything, but there were plausible excuses for that. It hadn’t kept him from making All-Star Games, or winning All-Star MVP’s, or becoming a Nike Signature athlete. But here it was, on the biggest stage imaginable, Irving’s moment - and he looked utterly bad. Irving’s saving grace: there was a lot of basketball to be played.
Kyrie had a playoffs for the ages
When you play like Kyrie Irving, there is always the opportunity for a Game 2 type performance. Looking at the big picture, though, we can take stock of Irving’s playoff performance on the whole. It’s not hyperbole to say that Irving performed at a historically great level, and he did it in his Age-23 season. Only 10 times in the history of the game has a player enjoyed a playoff run where they compiled a true shooting rate over 57 with a (basketball-reference) usage rate over 29%, and a turnover rate lower than 11% in 10 or more games. These are, of course, arbitrary end points and perhaps arbitrary stats to value, but Kyrie Irving finds himself among LeBron James, Michael Jordan (three times), Bernard King, Amare Stoudemire, Shaquille O’Neal, Karl Malone, and Patrick Ewing. Not bad.
Further, these end points give Irving quite a bit of breathing room in terms of usage and turnover rate. You just don’t see guards tasked with creating for themselves scoring with that kind of usage and efficiency against defenses like the Atlanta Hawks and Golden State Warriors very often. With Irving, the tendency is to play down his personal achievements or success by pointing to what his team does when he is or is not on the court. Even here, the Cavs were 9.4 points per 100 possessions better in the playoffs with Irving on the court, and 7.9 points per 100 possessions better with him off. Not a huge change, of course, but remember that the Cavs strategy for most of the playoffs was to let LeBron James work with the 2nd unit against opposing team’s benches. This meant Irving spent time, particularly against the Pistons, trying to hold his own against opposing starting units without James.
Redemption in Game 5, and his Cleveland moment
Thompson holds a semi-tongue-in-cheek grudge against the Kings for daring to draft another shooter, Jimmer Fredette, over him. "I considered myself the best shooter in that draft, so when someone took another shooter over me, it was a slap in the face," Thompson told ESPN.com after Game 1 of the Finals.
He delights in reminding teammates and coaches behind closed doors that two Cavaliers, Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson, went ahead of him in the same draft; he quips that the Cavs took "the wrong Thompson," team officials say. "He definitely remembers Kyrie went before him," assistant GM Kirk Lacob told ESPN.com. "I can say that for sure."
Klay Thompson in a really good basketball player. You can make a case that he’s more valuable in a certain role than Kyrie Irving. You could make the case that he’s more valuable in a few different roles than Kyrie Irving. It’s not clear Irving would have read this. It’s hard to believe he wasn’t made aware of it. What is clear is what happened next.
in games 3 thru 5 of the 2016 NBA Finals, Kyrie Irving averaged 35 points, 6 assists on 56% shooting.— Conrad Kaczmarek (@ConradKaz) August 27, 2016
He then scored 22 in the first half of Game 6 while the Cavs built a big lead before hurting his foot. LeBron James took the Cavs home. It’s the Game 5 performance, though, that will stand out. Irving took shots that someone not named Kyrie Irving would have no business taking. Klay Thompson defended him as well as you can defend with all the length you would want. It didn’t matter. The same playing style on the same court that led to the Game 2 disaster from the same player kept a Cavs team on the brink alive. Over and over again you cringed, only to see the ball fall in the hoop. A Warriors team desperate to end the series on their homecourt, to win a second title in a row, defending at the highest level, watched as Irving and LeBron James took turns making circus shots, coming back with willpower when they had no right to.
Perhaps the Warriors win Game 5 going away if Draymond Green isn’t suspended. Without Irving’s 41 points it’s likely academic - the Warriors would have won anyway.
Kyrie’s always been known as a fourth quarter performer, but it will be hard for him to top the game winning shot that broke the 52 year title draught for Cleveland. The Shot will be his Cleveland moment, even if there are others. Game 5 was a whirlwind of variance and brilliance, and the performance will people shaking their heads in wonder and disbelief for years to come. Don’t forget that Irving’s 2016 playoffs was somehow more than that. He sustained a historically great level of play for a team that accomplished what they weren’t supposed to.
Did I mention he’s 24?