Thursday night's nationally televised game between the San Antonio Spurs and Cleveland Cavaliers figured to be an interesting for both the former, winners of six straight after a post-All-Star Break slump, and the latter, one of the hottest teams in the NBA over the past two months. The reality was all that and more, a massively entertaining contest that presented these two teams as apparent title contenders and served as a tremendous advertisement for the upcoming postseason.
Down 110-104 with 33 seconds remaining in regulation, the Cavaliers got two 3-pointers from Kyrie Irving and a dose of good fortune at the other end to push the game to overtime. They followed with four more 3-pointers in the extra period to end up with a well-earned and thrilling 128-125 win.
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Yet that quick rundown provides a mere glimpse at what went down at the AT&T Center. When Tony Parker hit an impressive pull-up jumper to give the Spurs that aforementioned six-point lead, it looked as if the Cavs were headed for an understandable but still disappointing loss after a tremendous game from Irving, who at that point had 40 points. Kyrie lent the Cavs some new life with a quick three-pointer out of a timeout, which seemed to give them an opportunity for the tie if they could get a stop at the other end.
They succeeded in doing that when Parker missed a tough jumper, but Kawhi Leonard swooped in for an athletic offensive rebound to force a foul with four seconds on the clock. However, Leonard, a 79.8 percent free-throw shooter who had made 5-of-6 up to that point in the game, missed both from the stripe to give Cleveland another chance to force overtime. Irving did not waste it:
Not content to settle for 46 points with a dramatic highlight, Irving kept going right on through the extra five minutes and put up 11 more (two more three-pointers, a three-point play, and two free throws) to finish with a career-high 57 points on 20-of-32 from the field, 7-of-7 from deep, and 10-of-10 from the line. That scoring mark also set a new Cavaliers franchise record (topping the 56 LeBron James put up against the Toronto Raptors in 2005), set a new record for points scored against the Spurs in San Antonio, and tied Purvis Short's record for points against the Spurs in any NBA game.
It was LeBron James, though, who hit the dagger 3-pointer with 32 seconds left in the extra period to put the Cavaliers up 125-120:
James, playing without a headband for the third-straight game, finished with 31 points on 10-of-20 shooting, seven assists, and two steals. It's a testament to Irving's greatness that such an impressive night from the best player in the sport seemed minor by comparison.
Apart from Leonard's missed free throws, it's hard to criticize the Spurs for any deficiencies, because they were equally impressive and offered the latest evidence that they have transcended a post-break four-game losing streak that caused some to wonder if they had regressed from last season's championship form. This loss was every bit as impressive as San Antonio's previous six-consecutive wins against inferior competition, and it acted as a statement that they deserve to be mentioned with every other contender in the West even if they sit at sixth in the conference. Tony Parker had another stupendous game with 31 points (15-of-23 FG) and six assists, sending notice that he's absolutely past the confounding career-worst stretch he experienced in late February. Leonard (24 points, nine boards, seven assists), Tim Duncan (18 points, 11 rebounds, eight assists, four blocks), and Danny Green (24 points on 5-of-10 from long range) were also great over the course of the night, and San Antonio regularly created open shots with the offensive precision that has been their hallmark over the past few seasons.
Irving's performance just happened to rise to another level, one that should answer any remaining doubts that he can shoulder a major offensive load in a pressure-filled atmosphere. Still just 11 days shy of turning 23 years old, Kyrie took it upon himself to take and make several huge shots in a number of big moments. He didn't always make it easy on himself, but the ability to create offense from nothing is a skill in itself, no matter one's fondness for efficiency. If anyone wondered why LeBron wanted to join up with a fellow star who couldn't even get his team to the playoffs on his own, then this game served as a reasonable explanation. Few players can match Kyrie's talent, and he's just starting to show all the ways in which he can use it.
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