Kyrie Irving was ready. The self-proclaimed Cavaliers’ biggest cheerleader was ready to put down his pom poms and swap his suit for a wine and gold jersey. He knew that all of his begging and pleas would fall on the deaf ears of team physicians, keeping a long term, investment-like frame of mind when it came to clearing the reigning Rookie of the Year to resume full basketball activities. The clearance came just in time for Irving to undergo a requisite practice. He then dropped 28 points and 11 assists in a wire-to-wire win over the Los Angeles Lakers.
But the true test, per head coach Byron Scott, is Wednesday night as the Cavs travel to Conseco Fieldhouse to take on the Indiana Pacers.
All of the spin moves and behind-the-back dribbles provided a throw-back moment for Irving and his teammates. Starting shooting guard CJ Miles admitted that there were moments in the Cavaliers’ win where it was ten players standing around, marveling at the back-and-forth that ensued mid-game between Irving and Los Angles’ Kobe Bryant. It would be Lakers guard who would get the better of Irving on box score as well as a select sequence where the two players went head to head — Bryant blocking a fall-away jumper from Irving — but it would be the second-year superstar who would will his team to a victory.
“He just loves to play basketball,” Cavs head coach Byron Scott said following the game. “He loves the competition. He likes being put in the position of having to deliver. Again, he’s just a special young man.”
This special young man exudes confidence, as seen from his willingness to non-chalantly drain a three-pointer within the opening seconds of his first game in approximately three weeks. He played the entire first quarter without skipping a beat, allowing the Cavaliers to mount an early-game lead. 1 He instantly makes his teammates better, working with them on what spots to be on the floor and how passes should be delivered. It could be argued that he is just as much a part of Anderson Varejao’s All-Star season as the center is himself. He even made CJ Miles look like Ray Allen. But anyone can have one good game on a grand stage — just ask Rafer Alston.
“We’ll see how it goes from this point on,” said Scott. ”I didn’t think I was going to play him 37, 38 minutes tonight. I was just going with the flow of the game. Tomorrow is the biggest test. It’s his first back-to-back in a month. We’ll see how he deals with that.”
It was roughly one year ago in the same location where Irving’s heroism began to take shape. As Calvin Coolidge said best, “Heroism is not only in the man, but in the occasion.” The game on the line in an arena full of fans with their jerseys tucked into their jeans ((Topped only by Colts fans’ penchant for turtlenecks…)) a 19-year-old Irving attempted to take his 14 teammates, put them squarely on his still-developing shoulders, and will them to a win. Except he failed. A missed game-winning lay-up sent the game into overtime where the Cavaliers would run out of gas.
Irving would go on to use this moment to fuel the rest of his rookie season, leading to multiple game-winning shots, a Rookie of the Year award and a city revitalized. He would use Tuesday night’s game as a giant welcoming party, 20,000-plus fans ushering him back with oohs and ahhs, his teammates leaping out of their seats as clutch shots fell through the net. But while Irving would later say that he had a flashback moment to his childhood, feeling like Allen Iverson going one-on-one with Michael Jordan, he realized that his shortcomings led to him poking the bear that is Kobe Bryant. Forty-two points and all.
But as star-struck as he was to have gone toe-to-toe with Bryant, Irving also admitted that he was a little sore, having played nearly a full game in what was his first full run of action in 11 games. Like the Lakers, Indiana has provided a season of relative disappointment, currently sitting at a game below .500. The Pacers, however, provide as much star power as the Lakers, and will be fresh having neither played a night earlier nor jumped on a plane immediately after.
The Cavaliers have not topped a division foe since February 21, thanks to a one-point win over the Detroit Pistons. Irving, having not played in three weeks, was able to stay aggressive over the course of an entire game. Will his aggression be able to continue on the road?
This will be the test.
Photo: David Liam Kyle/Getty Images
The Cavs had, in Irving’s absence, fallen behind considerably in first periods.