• With LeBron James playing most of Game 4 in foul trouble, the Cavaliers received a much needed boost from Kyrie Irving who scored a playoff career high 42 points to down the Celtics.
By Rohan Nadkarni
May 24, 2017

Sometimes, someone gets hot. In Game 3 of the East finals, Marcus Smart, a career 29.1% three-point shooter, hit a Ray Allen-esque seven threes in a game the Celtics won by one possession, a flukey performance that still uncaged some silly takes and overexplanations. In Game 4 on Tuesday, the better team won, and this time, it was Kyrie Irving catching fire en route to a 112–99 Cavaliers win.

Let’s not mince words—Irving was the difference for Cleveland on Tuesday, exploding in the third quarter before finishing with a playoff career-high 42 points. Irving was playing at his very best in the third, gracefully dancing into the paint before artfully spinning the ball off the glass on balletic lay-ins, earning trips to the foul line, and knocking home back-breaking threes. The heroics from Uncle Drew were needed, especially as LeBron James long struggled to find his rhythm while playing much of the game in foul trouble.

The Cavs again looked lethargic at times against an Isaiah Thomas-less Celtics team, and Boston led by 10 at halftime. Wherever they’ve been keeping their switch, the Cavs flipped it again in the second half, shooting over 70% from the field while scoring 65 points in the final 24 minutes. In addition to Irving, James eventually found his groove and finished with 34 points, and Kevin Love added 17 points and a playoff career-high 17 rebounds.

But it was Irving who carried Cleveland while his teammates were slow to catch up. He scored 21 in the third—nearly matching Boston’s 23 points in that quarter by himself. Irving had the kind of performance that erases nuance from the discussion. Forget pick-and-roll coverages. Forget how well the Celtics move the ball when Thomas isn’t playing. Forget arguing whether Love should be playing more inside. When someone can get to the basket at will, score 42 points on 22 shots, and nearly match your team bucket for bucket for 12 minutes, it almost always doesn’t matter what else is happening in the game.

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Irving hasn’t lacked big moments since James’s return to Cleveland. His 57-point game against the Spurs last season was a masterpiece. And his Finals-clinching three against the Warriors last June was one of the most clutch shots in NBA history. But there’s still some debate over Irving and his value to the Cavs, particularly about how effective he can be without LeBron on the court and his (lack of) defensive impact. Tuesday showed the importance of a player like Irving, who can swing a game by himself when he maxes out offensively. Looking ahead to the Finals, the Cavaliers’ best chance at winning will likely come down to outshooting the Warriors, which will put even more pressure on Irving to deliver scores.

Individual brilliance is not exactly a novel concept for the Cavaliers. After all, much of Cleveland’s success this postseason has been predicated on LeBron James playing with the dominance of the unbeatable final boss from your favorite childhood video game. Nights like Tuesday are why teams such as the Cavs and Warriors are so dangerous—on any given night, one of their stars can take over and render an opposing coach’s plans completely meaningless.

In Game 4, it was Irving’s turn to cook the Celtics. If he and the Cavs’ other stars combine for a similar performance in Game 5, this series will be over.