You know that old saying, "It's not how you start, but how you finish that matters?" Well, Kyrie Irving started by missing his first seven shots on Wednesday night, contributing one lonely technical free throw through the first 10-plus minutes of the Cleveland Cavaliers' meeting with the Portland Trail Blazers. He then proceeded to score 11 points in the final 1:39 of the opening frame. (See? How you finish.)
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It's fair to say that he finished the game as a whole quite a bit stronger than that.
With 27.6 seconds remaining and the score knotted at 94 at Quicken Loans Arena, Irving dribbled the ball into the frontcourt and surveyed his options. LeBron James watched from the sideline as he had all night after being ruled out before the game with a sprained right wrist suffered during Cleveland's win over the Detroit Pistons on Tuesday. Every other Cav — and every Blazer, for that matter — trained his eyes squarely on the No. 1 pick in the 2011 NBA draft, wondering what he'd do next on a night where he'd utterly carried the Cleveland offense.
Nothing too fancy, as it turns out. Just pulling up from 25 feet away with five seconds left on the shot clock and firing over the outstretched left hand of Blazers swingman Nicolas Batum to drain his 11th — yes, 11th — 3-pointer of the night and give the Cavs a three-point lead with 6.4 seconds left.
Terry Stotts responded with a nifty out-of-bounds play that saw Batum lob a crosscourt pass from the left sideline to the right corner to Portland's late-game assassin, point guard Damian Lillard, to give the Blazers one last good look at a tie. But Lillard's corner 3 attempt after a catch on the run came up short, with Irving grabbing the rebound and knocking down a pair of free throws to ice a 99-94 win, Cleveland's eighth straight, to keep the Cavs surging and improve their record to 27-20.
And this is where I cop to burying the lede, because those free throws gave Kyrie a total of 55 points.
That is, y'know, quite a lot of points.
It's the most he's ever scored in his three-plus years as a pro, topping the 44 he hung on the Charlotte Bobcats last April. It's the most anybody has scored in the NBA this season, overtaking Mo Williams and Klay Thompson, who poured in 52 apiece earlier this month. (This is some month.)
It's the second-most in Cavs franchise history, tied with that LeBron guy and behind only that LeBron guy. And since those LeBron performances came on the road, it was the most ever scored at the Q, slotting in above Allen Iverson's 54-spot in January of 2001, back when it was called Gund Arena (which I always thought would be a lovely name for a girl). It makes him just the 41st player since the 1963-64 season to hang a double-nickel in an NBA game, and just the
17th 16th dude 6-foot-5 or under to pull it off, joining Iverson, Tiny Archibald, Gilbert Arenas, Rick Barry, Fred Brown, Adrian Dantley, Lou Hudson, Brandon Jennings, Pete Maravich, Earl Monroe, Calvin Murphy, Tony Parker, Oscar Robertson, David Thompson, Dwyane Wade and Deron Williams.
It was an out-of-body-experience kind of night, and Irving's four-time MVP running buddy sure seemed to enjoy it:
— LeBron James (@KingJames) January 29, 2015
And so did the rest of Irving's teammates, as shown in this winning-locker-room Instagram video shot by Tristan Thompson:
That impromptu post-game shower was the closest anyone got to cooling Kyrie off after he got going late in the first.
Irving made 17 of his 36 field-goal attempts — meaning he shot a shade under 59 percent from the field over the final 38-or-so minutes — including 11 3-pointers on 19 tries, both of which are Cleveland all-time franchise highs. He also shot a perfect 10-for-10 from the charity stripe, including those critical final-seconds freebies to put the game out of reach, while dishing five assists, pulling down four rebounds and snagging a pair of steals in 38 1/2 minutes of work.
Sixteen of the 55 points came in the fourth quarter, when nobody else on the Cavs could seem to get anything going and needed every last ounce of magic Kyrie could muster to hold off the charging Blazers, who clawed back from a 14-point first-half deficit behind a monster performance from injured but gritting-it-out Portland power forward LaMarcus Aldridge.
Twenty-two of Aldridge's Portland-high 38 points game after intermission, and he had the Blazers up by three, 92-89, after a short jumper with 2:29 remaning. But Kyrie responded just over a minute later with 3-pointers number 10 (on a beautiful little spin and reversal coming off a left-wing Kevin Love screen) and 11 (as shown above) before snagging that final rebound and striding to the line for a pair as "M-V-P!" chants cascaded down from the rafters in the Q.
"I was really, really emotional at that moment," said Irving of his final 3-pointer, according to Chris Haynes of the Northeast Ohio Media Group, "but the only thing I was worried about was getting a stop. ... I was just worried about the next play and getting a stop, coming off with a win."
The Cavs did, thanks almost entirely to Irving authoring a sensational and historic performance, one that comes hot on the heels of his brilliant outing against the Pistons — a then-season-high 38 points on 13-for-23 shooting, six assists, three steals, 16 in the fourth quarter — that punctuates his productive participation in the Cavs' recent run.
While Irving's numbers were nothing to sneeze at before Cleveland's streak — averaging 20.7 points, 5.2 assists, 3.1 rebounds and 1.5 steals in 38.1 minutes per game on 45.1/36.5/84.4 shooting splits — they've been scintillating since, with the explosions of the last two nights bumping him up to 28.4 points, 5.4 dimes, 3.3 boards and 2.3 steals in 38.1 minutes per game on scorching marks of 52.9 percent from the floor, 55.4 percent from deep (on a Steph-and-Klay-like seven 3-point tries per game) and 88.9 percent from the line over the last eight games. And, more importantly, he's shown both an increased capacity to produce in the context of a LeBron-centric universe and the ability to shoulder a giant scoring burden for a LeBron-less squad, which he didn't really do during James' two-week injury absence preceding the win streak.
Irving's game will always rankle some who prefer their point guards to play a more traditional role, setting the table for others rather than hunting for their own offense. But with LeBron nursing an injury, Kevin Love continuing his walkabout — 10 points on 3-for-15 shooting in 39 minutes against the Blazers, missing his last 11 field-goal attempts and failing to score after the 5:54 mark of the first quarter just one night after a 3-for-11 outing against Detroit — and nobody else on the court for Cleveland seeming capable of generating quality looks against Portland's stingy defense, the Cavaliers needed someone who could create and make shots.
At the risk of aping a popular soda slogan, to win this game, Cleveland needed buckets. Luckily, even with their best player down, they've got someone who knows how to get 'em. And man, did he ever get 'em on Wednesday.
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