Career night showcased Cavaliers' Kyrie Irving at his unstoppable best
Those who opted out of Thursday’s nationally televised nightcap between the Spurs and Cavaliers unwittingly passed on the game of the season. Moreover, they missed an emergent superstar astonish. Kyrie Irving has never been better than he was in these 47 minutes, during which he scored a career-high 57 points (20-for-32 FG, 7-for-7 from three), forged an improbable comeback to force overtime and sealed a 128-125 win against the defending champions in the extra period.
Even San Antonio had never seen anything like it. Irving scored more points against the Spurs on Thursday night than had any opponent in their franchise’s history. Each of his field goals seemed to come by more absurd means than the last—from basic pick-and-rolls to inconceivable layups to game-saving three-pointers where no clean look should have been available. This was Irving in full command.
"He was unstoppable,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said (via Dan McCarney of the San Antonio Express-News). “I don't know how to guard that. We all know how talented he is, but he went to a new level tonight."
At various points in the game, Irving was defended by Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker and Marco Belinelli. None among them was in any position to stop him. Even when the lankier Green or Leonard appeared to have Irving pressured out beyond the three-point line as the shot clock dwindled, a quick crossover turned the dynamic completely. Irving was never more than a move or two away from creating the space he needed, be it a slim opening between the arms of multiple help defenders or the airspace between his jumper and a hard close-out.
Nothing could be done. That realization came to the Spurs gradually as their lead, earned through crisp execution, never moved past 10 despite heroics from Tony Parker (31 points, six assists), Kawhi Leonard (24 points, nine rebounds, seven assists) and Tim Duncan (18 points, 11 rebounds, eight assists). A free throw from Leonard secured a 108-101 advantage with roughly a minute remaining in regulation. Finishing the win at that point seemed a formality, yet the Cavaliers converted points off of a Leonard miss, scored threes as the Spurs made twos and hit their crucial break when Leonard whiffed on both of his free throw attempts with just four seconds remaining. Down three, Cleveland turned to Irving to complete the comeback and was rewarded as his jumper streamed through the net at the buzzer.
Further Herculean efforts would come in overtime, where Irving fought through exhaustion to score 11 of Cleveland’s final 18 points. The other seven belonged to LeBron James, himself brilliant on the night (31 points on 20 shots, seven assists, five rebounds) and nearly as essential. Between them, James and Irving totaled 88 points on combined 55-percent shooting from the field. Each made incredible plays in spite of the stalls in Cleveland’s offense, so much so as to win a game that should have been out of reach.
San Antonio played better basketball. It systematically attacked through personnel and scheme to generate quality scoring opportunities at will. Leonard’s defense was a vicious counterpoint to James’ offense (and vice versa), while Parker played his own best game of the season to help offset Irving’s.
But as can happen in a league defined by its stars, the Spurs fell victim to the work of exceptional players. Irving and James were so magnificent as to overcome a vacant night from Kevin Love (who sat the entirety of the fourth quarter), the persistent presence of overmatched veteran James Jones, Leonard’s periodic dominance, a switch-heavy defensive tweak that created mismatches all over the floor, late-game rebounding troubles, Duncan’s demonstrative rebellion against time itself and stilted offensive execution. Irving and James simply made plays that few others could.
San Antonio can live with that. The Spurs were winners of six straight, though none so much a test as this. Even in defeat they passed. Popovich’s team has finally started to look itself again, not coincidentally as Parker resolves his nagging injuries and Leonard works his way into a rhythm. Should it take their opponent a 57-point explosion on largely contested shots and a series of essential threes to even force overtime in the first place, the Spurs are in a good place.
This was an outcome beyond San Antonio’s control. Even a smart, hard-working defense can only make things so difficult for a scorer when his every point seems to come so easily. Irving's ability to reach that level of scoring potency served terrifying notice – a warning throughout the league of just what this 22-year-old guard is capable.
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