Kyrie Irving gave the Cavs new life with a 'special' Game 4 performance

Ball Don't Lie

CLEVELAND — Kyrie Irving was in pain after Game 3. It wasn’t his knee, or his ankle, or general exhaustion after playing 44 grueling minutes against a Golden State Warriors squad that had run roughshod over the NBA on its way to 15 straight postseason wins. No, what hurt was knowing he had the chance to give the Cleveland Cavaliers a win that they desperately needed, and that he’d come up short.

“It was, like, a natural shock how that game ended,” Irving told reporters on Thursday. “Naturally, you want to blame yourself, because you feel just awful because it didn’t go in. So it necessarily wasn’t the right decision, and you have so many other options, and you start replaying that play over and over. […] After the game, it hurt. You feel like you let your teammates down because you didn’t necessarily make the right decision.”

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Two nights later, Irving turned the tables. The All-Star point guard inflicted 40 points of pain on the Warriors on Friday night — the third 40-point game of his playoff career, and his second this postseason — to lead an historic offensive effort that staved off a sweep and ensured that Golden State wouldn’t clinch an NBA championship at Quicken Loans Arena for the second time in the past three years.

After going 0-for-7 from 3-point land in Game 3, Irving had his full shot-making repertoire on display on Friday. He went 15-for-27 from the floor and 7-for-12 from 3-point range, drilling every kind of shot you could ask for.

“The difference tonight was 7-for-12 from three,” said Warriors guard Shaun Livingston. “Game 3, he didn’t really get going from the 3-point line. So that’s a different game.”

Klay Thompson was still there, still contesting, still making Kyrie work. On this night, though, that didn’t matter.

“He’s making tough shots, making left-hand floaters flying across the lane, shooting over two people, making it. Making tough threes,” said Warriors forward Draymond Green. “[…] Kyrie is Kyrie. He’ll do what he do. He can score with the best of them. Probably the best finisher in the league. He’s going to do what he do. Klay needs to continue to play the defense he’s played. Great defense.”

Irving, though, is the kind of scorer who can render even great defense irrelevant, especially when his team needs it most.

“He’s one of those players who plays best when his back is against the wall,” Livingston said.

No matter how many Warriors defenders got in his way, Kyrie Irving got what he wanted. (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images)
No matter how many Warriors defenders got in his way, Kyrie Irving got what he wanted. (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images)

“Well, the magnitude of the games — especially the last game — it hit me in a very deep place,” Irving said after Game 4. “[…] It was another do-or-die game for us, and we had to leave it all out there. I was quoted [on Thursday as] saying that there was no other option, and that was completely true. And that still stands. We still have to go up there, Game 5, which is going to be unbelievable, unbelievable atmosphere. We know they’re going to come out with a hit-first mentality, but we got to hit them first.”

Hitting first, and hitting repeatedly, is getting to be something of a habit for Irving when the Cavs find themselves in a potential series-ending situation.

Over the past three postseasons, he’s played in 11 full games in which the Cavs either had a chance to close out an opponent or needed to win to avoid elimination. (Injuries limited him to just 12 minutes in Game 6 against the Chicago Bulls in the 2015 Eastern Conference semifinals, and 22 in Game 4 against the Atlanta Hawks in the 2015 conference finals.) In those games, Irving has sparkled, averaging 28.6 points, five assists, 4.5 rebounds, 1.6 steals and one block per game, shooting 49.2 percent from the field, 43.8 percent from 3-point range and 88.7 percent from the free-throw line.

“He’s just been very special in closeout games,” said Cavs superstar LeBron James. “On both sides. Us being able to close out a team trying to close out on us. He’s just been built for that moment.”

Irving opened the game with a flourish, nailing two step-back Js — a left-wing triple over the outstretched hand of Stephen Curry, followed by a midranger along the baseline after shaking Klay Thompson with a crossover — in the first 60 seconds of action. He kept the pressure on, as did the rest of the Cavs, fighting their way to the front of the rim and to the foul line en route to a record-setting 49 first-quarter points, 11 of them coming from Kyrie.

“We slowed the game down within the realms of the way we were playing, but it was still high-tempo,” Irving said after the game. “We got to the free-throw line, we got in the bonus early, and then we got some easy free throws and some easy ones. And then you include that with our pace, it was hard for them to keep up with us tonight. It’s the first time all series, but we just kept attacking, kept attacking, and understood that they were never going to quit.”

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Golden State’s offense continued to click, too, but stars Irving, James and Kevin Love kept the Warriors at arm’s length. After a wild third quarter that featured confusion over whether or not Green had been ejected, tempers flaring during a battle for a loose ball between Zaza Pachulia and Iman Shumpert, and a fan ejected for jawing with Matt Barnes, the Warriors trailed by 19 points. But a quick 8-0 spurt to start the fourth quarter chopped the lead down to 11 with 9:39 to go, raising the specter of another explosive close to the game that could erase a Cavaliers lead, just like the end of Game 3.

But Irving wasn’t interested in reliving the end of Game 3.

“We got it to 11 and Kyrie hit the toughest three I’ve seen all year,” Green said.

He’d drive for a floater on the ensuing Cavs possession, and the Warriors wouldn’t get within 15 again. Six minutes later, Irving put the finishing touches on yet another brilliant performance, locking down the win with style:

After the game, Irving credited those big fourth-quarter buckets to Cavs head coach Tyronn Lue finding a bit more rest for him earlier in Game 4 than he had in Game 3. With fresher legs underneath him, he felt strong enough to seize the opportunity to put the Warriors away.

“I understood that instead of being on the opposite end of keeping it within striking distance, we wanted to especially keep the lead, just to create that separation,” he said. “You look at Game 3 and those last probably four minutes, 30 seconds, there was some opportunities that I didn’t take advantage of for us, to just propel us to that win. That stuck with me, and it definitely put a conscious effort to make sure that I stayed aggressive, especially in that fourth quarter down the stretch. And we had that separation in order for to us feel comfortable and then get the win.”

They got it, and now the Cavs find themselves in a familiar position — down 3-1, heading to Oakland for Game 5, having secured proof that they can take down the big, bad Warriors and knowing that all they have to do is get one more win to come back home with a chance to make things verrrrrrry interesting.

“We finally settled in, man,” Irving said after the game. “It was about damn time, for all of us just to really see what playing well as a group looks like against a great team like the Warriors. We understand who they have on their team and what they’re about and how established they are, but I think that in those three losses, we lost track of who we were at the time.

“We’re still a special team, as well. We are here for a reason. We’re going against a juggernaut of a team, but we’re a juggernaut of a team, too. We have some special pieces.”

Including their starting point guard.

“I said that over and over again, that he’s always been built for the biggest moments, and tonight he showed that once again,” James said. “It’s not surprising. He’s just that special.”

More NBA Finals coverage from Yahoo Sports:

Cavs score NBA Finals-record 49 in a quarter
LeBron pulls off ridiculous alley-oop to himself
Referee error leads to confusing DraymondGreen non-ejection
Did ZazaPachulia punch ImanShumpert in the groin during Game 4?

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter!

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