Kyrie Irving hits more ridiculous shots than just about anyone in the NBA. Four or five times in just about every game he plays, Irving will make some sort of ludicrous, twisting, turning, fall-away, stuck-in-traffic, living-on-a-prayer shot that leaves everyone gasping for air and wondering, “Come on, how lucky can a guy be?”
Then, a few minutes later, he will make one even crazier.
The thing is, all those miraculous shots have never quite painted the picture of a great player. Irving has been like, say, Gael Monfils, the incomparable French tennis star who runs down 10 balls a match nobody else can reach and hits 10 shots a match that nobody else can hit. But Monfils doesn’t quite get past the quarterfinals, doesn’t quite get higher than 10th in the world, because … something. Irving has been one of the dozen or so best players on Earth for a couple of years now. But he’s never quite pushed past that.
Youth has something to do with it, sure. Injuries, sure. Irving’s defensive reputation precedes him, and not in a good way. But whatever the reason, Irving has been one of those players whose sum has never quite balanced with his parts, whose extraordinary and perhaps even unmatched talents as a finisher have never quite convinced people that he is a transcendent player. This series is changing that, though.
Yes, Game 5 of the NBA Finals was a weird one. Golden State’s Draymond Green was absent either (depending on who you ask) because of his infuriating or his inadvertent habit of connecting with other players’ groins. The one-game suspension put Oracle Arena in a dark mood long before the game ever started — they blamed LeBron James for being a crybaby. Or something. Fans brought out convoluted signs* and booed persistently and with as much venom as they could muster (and, it’s sometimes forgotten, many of these people are the same ones who go to Oakland Raiders games, so there’s venom to spare).
The malice did not prevent James from scoring 41 points, grabbing 16 rebounds, dishing seven assists, blocking three shots and so on. Of course it didn’t. LeBron is LeBron.
*While many people focused on the bizarre and surprisingly long-winded signs that questioned James’ ruggedness in the face of name-calling, my favorite sign was held up by a woman. She had come up with an acronym for the word CLE: “Cleveland Loses Everytime.” In addition to the questionable grammar, it just seems kind of a cruel thing to celebrate in a sign, no? What, it’s not enough fun JUST being a Golden State Warriors fan? This seems to me like winning the lottery and then making a sign ripping all those people who lost.
While there was much talk about what the loss of Green might mean emotionally, his absence actually had a much more tangible effect on the Warriors: Their defense went to hell. Green is, of course, a fantastic defender — he has twice finished as the runner-up to San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard for Devensive Player of the Year — but the effect was even greater than his own defense. There’s a wonderful episode of “The Office” where Dwight — the overbearing assistant to the regional manager — is fired. Shortly afterward, the manager, Michael, finds that for some reason all the office plants are dying and the toys on his desk aren’t arranged neatly when he arrives at the office. Michael simply didn’t realize all the little things that Dwight did.
So it is with the Warriors and Green. It’s easy to simply miss out on the million ways Green switches, chases and fixes someone else’s blunders. Monday, James and Irving slashed freely to the basket. In the first half, Cleveland had 61 points but only five assists. Golden State coach Steve Kerr saw this as a good sign — the Cavaliers were playing one-on-one ball and that is usually not good enough to match Golden State. But with Draymond Green out, it turns out, one-on-one basketball was more than good enough because James and Irving took one-on-one to new heights. They became the first teammates to score 40-plus points in an NBA Finals game.
As with the rest of the series — as with the rest of the playoffs — it’s all but impossible to tell what carries over from this game to the next. Every game in this series has had a double-digit margin. We have not had a single NBA playoff game with a margin of five points or less in more than a month. Each game is its own self-contained story. The Warriors have beaten Cleveland by 15, 33 and 11. Cleveland has beaten the Warriors by 30 and 15. It’s an interesting series without any interesting games.
But one thing we can take away from this series regardless is the full-throated arrival of Kyrie Irving. He has now scored 30-plus points in each of the last three games and just about everyone who has watched him slip and slide between defenders and push up improbable shots through a web of arms has been reminded of the same person: Isiah.
When Isiah Thomas was at his best, he was more than a great basketball player. He was a minor miracle, night after night. Thomas was not a particularly great shooter. He shot less than 30 percent from 3-point range in his career. He was, instead, a magical passer and scorer, a 6-foot-1 whirlwind who would decide, every now and again (and especially in the playoffs) that the game belonged to him, that the rim belonged to him, and there wasn’t a single thing anybody else could do about it.
That was Irving on Monday. He added a few 3-pointers to get his 41 points, but most of the work he did was around the basket, against taller defenders, and the Warriors were helpless to stop him.
When the Cavaliers drafted Irving with the first pick in the 2011 draft (and what a draft that was with Irving, Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Klay Thompson, the other Isaiah Thomas, Kemba Walker, etc.), the idea was that he would be the Cleveland Cavaliers’ new star after LeBron James left. The whole franchise was riding on him, the ball was his to control, and he put up impressive numbers right away, began hitting his supernatural shots right away. But it wasn’t clear how those numbers or those shots made the Cavs any better.
Then James came back, and the new question was: How did Irving fit? He is, by definition, the team’s point guard, but the offense goes through LeBron James. He is certainly not a shooting guard, not with J.R. Smith on the team. The Cavaliers also acquired Kevin Love, a young man used to being the star. What would Kyrie Irving become?
The last three games have given a hint — Irving and James, at their best, are like a great professional wrestling tag team, pulling the defenses away from each other, taking turns at smashing their way to the basket. They are co-stars. Yes, this is LeBron James’ team, and it is his vision and power and intensity that drives the Cavaliers. But it is Irving who can break the spirit of a defense by making these crazy shots even when the defense is perfect. In Game 5, the two of them basically beat the Warriors by themselves, “Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid” style.
This doesn’t change the daunting challenge the Cavaliers face. Yes, Game 6 is in Cleveland, but Draymond Green returns, fully charged and with a chip the size of Rhode Island on his shoulder. It’s unlikely that Steph Curry will again miss nine of the 14 3-pointers he takes, and unlikely that Harrison Barnes will go 2 for 14 on basically wide-open shots, and, yes, it’s unlikely that James and Irving will make 60 percent of their 3-point shots.
Still, Kyrie Irving’s emergence, as much as anything else, has at least given us a Game 6 and given Cleveland a reason to hope. When this series began, few people expected even that.