Let’s imagine a nightmare: The Cavs, winners of 10 straight playoff games, are rolling toward the NBA Finals again. They look like they might defend their title. But then they unexpectedly lose a game at home, and the Eastern Conference Finals are now 2-1. No big deal, it’s just one game. Except suddenly the Celtics are winning Game 4 by double digits. And LeBron is in foul trouble. Not just run-of-the-mill foul trouble; more like he-needs-to-sit-the-last-seven-minutes-of-the-first-half foul trouble.
But that’s not even the scariest part of this nightmare. The scary part, the really bad part, is Game 5, with the series improbably tied and the nation’s favorite underdog back at home with a chance. It was all headed that way.
And then Kyrie Irving happened.
You know that brief moment when you wake up from a horrible dream and realize that everything that just happened wasn’t real? That feeling of relief? That’s what Kyrie delivered last night in Cleveland. The season was on the brink. He brought it back.
With 6:46 left in the first half, and the Cavs trailing Boston by 10, LeBron tried to get out of his funk by driving to the basket. Terry Rozier drew a charge. It was LeBron’s fourth foul and he went to the bench.
It is no secret that the Cavs have struggled over the last three seasons when LeBron is not on the court. From the beginning of his career, Kyrie has faced questions about whether he can win if he is a team’s best player. Despite his occasional moments of brilliance, doubts have lingered. He hit the game-winning shot in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals—and still couldn’t escape the fact that the Cavs were 0-8 this season when LeBron didn’t play.
So when LeBron had to go to the bench, it was the most precarious moment of the season. The Cavs were looking at dropping their second straight home game, which would have left them facing Game 5 back in Boston with the series tied.
The Celtics quickly pushed their lead to 16 points, and it looked like it might be a 2010 collapse for the Cavs all over again.
The knives were out. The excuses were being prepared. The unthinkable suddenly seemed inevitable.
That’s when Kyrie stopped the bleeding. He scored 12 points in the final 5:11 of the half, and the Cavs found themselves only down by 10 headed into the locker room—the same deficit they faced when LeBron checked out. Kyrie had prevented a disaster.
In the third quarter, the Cavs closed the gap. And it was Kyrie who put them over the top, as he scored 14 points in the final two and a half minutes of the quarter, which included hitting a three at the buzzer from at least 26 feet out. They didn’t look back.
I am going to emphasize this again: Kyrie scored 14 points in the final two and a half minutes of the third quarter. That is absurd. I had to doublecheck to make sure I had that right.
Though while it may have been absurd, it was also completely within the realm of what he is capable of. He is a special player—a completely unique offensive talent. Of course he has his flaws. All players do. But how many other players would have been able to do what he did, in that moment, with everything on the line?
There will be some doubts about his game that persist. However, his list of accomplishments is now up there with just about any other player in the league. He’s had 50-point outbursts in the regular season and multiple heroic games in the postseason. Even if, for whatever reason, he can’t yet carry a team to victory consistently in January and February, he sure seems to be able to do it when it matters most.
When it was all over in Game 4, he tallied 42 points on 15-of-22 shooting from the floor. And he put the Cavs within one win of getting back to the NBA Finals.
At the young age of 25, Kyrie has already had some incredible performances in his career. A year ago, he hit the biggest shot in the history of Cleveland.
I submit that his game last night was as impressive as anything else he’s done.