The day after Stephen Curry hit a halfcourt shot in Oklahoma City that sent basketball fans everywhere into living room hysteria, Kyrie Irving was getting embarrassed by a bad Wizards team in one of those Sunday afternoon games that everyone tries to forget. It was late February. LeBron James was sitting out to rest, and the rest of the Cavs forgot to show up. When the Cavs went down 23 in the second half, newly-minted head coach Ty Lue put Kyrie back on the court to play the fourth quarter with the second unit.
When reporters asked afterward if he was sending a message to his point guard, Lue smirked and nodded. When another asked whether LeBron's rest should give Cleveland's other stars a chance to carry the team, Lue smirked again. "You would think so," he said.
Kyrie was the last player to speak to reporters that day. He talked about defensive focus, and he denied that Lue had forced him back in the game, claiming he'd asked back onto the court. Then he was done—the whole exchange was over in about three minutes.
I remember all this because of how truly miserable the Cavs looked. On one side of the NBA, Steph Curry was living a fever dream, and on the other, this Cavs team was radiating anxiety. Even J.R. Smith was shaking his head mournfully. "We gotta figure out what's wrong with us," he said at the time. "If we're serious about who we're supposed to be, we can't do this."
LeBron James had left the arena before the game was even over. Kyrie was the only Cavs starter playing out the blowout. Afterwards, he was the last one in the locker room, left to try and downplay the drama. I didn't think about this from Kyrie's perspective until last night.
In the second half of Game 5 in the NBA Finals, Kyrie had another chance to carry the Cavs, and good lord he delivered. He finished 41 points on 24 shots. He hit everything. Pull-up threes, finishes at the rim, contested pull-up jumpers, twisting drives that ended in gorgeous floaters. It was like that night in San Antonio where he put up 57 points. It was like watching someone channel the holy spirit.
LeBron had 25 points to carry the Cavs in the first half, but it was the 23 second-half points from Kyrie that buried the Warriors and clinched a 112-97 victory. "It happens," Klay Thompson said after the game. "He's a phenomenal player. It obviously stings. Give Kyrie credit. He was hitting tough floaters, turnarounds."
"We tried a lot of different people," Steve Kerr said when asked about Irving. "Klay was on him quite a bit, and Steph. Obviously a lot of switching was going on. But he just had a great game."
It's not to single out Kyrie as the lone star on a night that LeBron finished with 41 points, 16 rebounds, 7 assists, 3 blocks, and 3 steals. Even without Draymond Green in the Warriors lineup, the Cavs needed A+ games from both their superstars to survive the night at Oracle.
But Kyrie has always been the question mark. Dominance from LeBron is the most basic prerequisite for any Cavs success, and that's generally been a constant. To put it over the top, he needs the help he got last night. "Timely bucket after bucket that led our team," LeBron said of Kyrie. "The fourth quarter, I mean, he hit timely shot after shot after shot when those guys were trying to get back into the game.
"It's probably one of the greatest performances I've ever seen live," LeBron added.
Here's where we have to pause and note that when Kyrie Irving is feeling it, he puts on as good of a show as anyone in the NBA. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson are great, but a cascade of threes only goes so far. Russell Westbrook has more raw energy and Kevin Durant has more raw skill, but neither one of them can lose their minds like this.
When Kyrie gets in the zone, he hits every kind of shot you can imagine. All he needs is two inches of space, and he hits twisting pull-up jumpers, step-back threes, and then he finishes at the rim against guys twice his size. The degree of difficulty matters here. It's what sets him apart, at least from an entertainment standpoint. Kyrie gives you hero ball taken to comic–book extremes. He tries reckless, over-the-top shots that would feel unrealistic even in your driveway, and then knocks them down in Klay Thompson's face.
Of course, they don't always work. What Irving did at Oracle last night, he tried in Cleveland in the second half of Game 4. It failed miserably. After playing 43 and 46 minutes, respectively, he and LeBron were exhausted and went cold in the fourth quarter. None of the jumpers were falling, and the Warriors pulled away to what seemed like the decisive win of the NBA Finals. Likewise, through the first two games of the Finals, Kyrie was 12-of-36 from the field, and the Warriors won by a combined 48 points.
But Game 5 helped bring some things into focus. First of all, in the same way LeBron's excellence could be counted on in Miami, the Heat's playoff fortunes tended to rise and fall with Dwyane Wade's knees and each emergency visit to Tim Grover. Now we can say pretty confidently that Cleveland success is as much about what Irving brings as anything LeBron does. If he's hitting, LeBron can do almost everything else, and the Cavs can hang with anyone.
Just as important, it's now clear that Kyrie Irving can do it. It gives the Cavs hope in these Finals, and it's a good sign for the future. While one All-Star (Love) has crumbled in this series, the other has shown more resilience than anyone thought possible. Kyrie was great against the Hawks and Raptors, but the Finals and the Warriors are a different level, and he flunked the first two tests. Last night was different, though. Last night was why LeBron left Wade to play with a superstar who's 10 years younger.
It could all change after Game 6. Anytime the Cavs lose a big game, everyone talks about how hard it is to play with Kyrie. It's a fair point. He dominates the ball, and when the shots don't fall, all that dribbling sucks the life out of the rest of the offense. But if all that skepticism is fair, what about playing with LeBron?
When LeBron got to Cleveland, Kyrie Irving was 23 years old, and anything less than a title was unacceptable. Kyrie's entire career shifted to a different, accelerated timeline that made it harder to appreciate what he does well. When the Cavs were underperforming last year, all that mattered is that he didn't pass enough, he couldn't hit enough spot-up jumpers and his defense wasn't good enough.
He never got the chance to be the fun, young point guard everyone loves—he is the guy who LeBron bet the second half of his career on. He's the new Dwyane Wade, which is essentially asking him to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. And when LeBron walks out in disgust after a February loss against the Wizards that he didn't even play in, Kyrie is the one in the middle of the stressed out locker room, on a team that spends nine months churning through controversies and waiting for the Finals.
Playing with LeBron is obviously a good deal overall—41, 16, 7, 3, and 3 is a great deal—but nobody should take it for granted that a 24-year-old can make this arrangement look natural. More than anything else, that's what made Game 5 so impressive. It's what's always made it so much fun to watch Kyrie when it works. Degree of difficulty matters here.