In what was his final contest as a teenager, Cavaliers rookie point guard Kyrie Irving may have compiled his most complete game as a professional. Already recording a handful of game-winning shots, including an ice-cold display at the free throw line against the World Champions, Irving fell just shy of a triple-double in Cleveland’s overtime loss to the playoff-bound Atlanta Hawks, settling for a team-high 29 points, nine assists and three steals to go with nine rebounds.
But it was not necessarily what Irving did as much as how.
Displaying immense poise early on, Irving played the role of the distributor; power forward Antawn Jamison reaped early benefits, sinking four of his first five shots, scoring 10 points in the first quarter alone. Irving, later sensing the game slipping away but still being within reach, flipped the switch. The rookie subsequently collected 16 of his 29 points in the 12 minutes of play; the first-overall picked checked in with 7:30 remaining in the contest, his team down one point.
Irving has an attack mode. Often quiet and soft-spoken during interviews and a joke-fueled prankster behind locker room walls, the kid turns into a 190-pound dynamo without as much as a friendly warning to the opposition. Jeff Teague, a player who would likely beat Irving to the finish line in a 40-yard dash, was repeatedly torched off of the dribble.
It would surprise few if Atlanta’s Kirk Hinrich was still a bit dizzy after Irving made him look foolish on not one, but two buzzer-beating plays — both moves to Irving’s left after a crossover dribble-turned-spin move had the Kansas product heading to the wrong spot on the floor.
Surely Irving missed what would have been the game-winner, a mid-range jump shot that caromed off of the glass as the clock neared zeroes. And yes, Irving turned the ball over seven times (in 41-plus minutes), an amount that likely drew the ire of head coach Byron Scott despite the rest of the box score. But having the willingness to take the game-winning shot, once again, and possessing the attitude that exudes confidence that, if the game is once again on the line, the decision will rest in his hands.
“It was a tough loss,” said Irving. “Now we have to move on to the next game. I thought my shot at the end was in, but it’s the law of averages. They are not all going to go in.”
It’s this same line of thinking that allowed Irving to buckle down and drain the game-winning lay-up against the Boston Celtics just weeks after missing the exact same shot against the Indiana Pacers. The same point of reference that sets the stage for second-half domination even when the first half doesn’t go as well as planned.
The statistical comparisons of what Irving is accomplishing at such a young age are seemingly boundless. Fox Sports Ohio displayed a graphic wherein Irving is one of five rookies to average over 17 points on at least 47 percent shooting while also dishing out at least five assists. The other four men: Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan, Grant Hill and Earvin “Magic” Johnson. His 29 points, nine rebounds and nine assists on Wednesday night place him along side John Johnson (1970) and LeBron James (2003) as the only Cavalier rookies to have as many points, rebounds and assists in one contest.
On Friday, Kyrie Irving will turn 20-years old and the similac-scented teenager narrative will slowly dissipate in to the rear view mirror of this stardom-bound point guard’s career arc. As most of us know all too well, being older is only beneficial when you’re afforded bigger and better things. But in the case of Irving, as he continues to improve seemingly every time he takes to the hardwood, taking on players older and wiser than he, the Cavaliers’ future looks bigger and better than ever.
(Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images)