CLEVELAND – For Kyrie Irving, the partnership with LeBron James and Kevin Love had facilitated a once-naïve player's entrance into Toronto and a fresh journey across the border. These playoffs unleashed the most potent version of Irving, with a brilliant blend of ball handling and shooting, and yet The North had frozen his mind. Irving stepped onto the court inside Air Canada Centre last week and was discombobulated, but now days later, an admission came.
Toronto was defeating, mentally and audibly.
"It was really, really loud," Irving said late Wednesday. "I know I probably wasn't the only guy that felt that way."
James and Love helped Irving reach this postseason stage at 24 years old, a trip to Canada for a consecutive Eastern Conference finals, and Irving became a disconcerted, shaken co-star. The Cleveland Cavaliers had two straight losses to the Raptors – with Irving's 3-of-19 performance in Game 3 that seemed improbable after he had reached 20 points with ease in all but one of their previous 10 postseason games. Then in Game 4, Lowry delivered an offensive clinic against Irving, evening the series at 2-2.
The reins have loosened off these Cavaliers, off James and onto Irving and Love to distribute shots and passes, offensive play sets and leadership. "It all starts with our floor general," James would say Wednesday night, and Irving sat beside him, hat in hand and his usual unfazed grin. His fractured kneecap in the NBA Finals a season ago eliminated him from the trials of adverse road situations in Oakland. This year, Irving confesses, his mind failed to calibrate to Toronto – to the crowd's noise, to rapper Drake's antics.
"I had to take a step back," Irving said.
It all starts with Irving for these Cavaliers, James said, and his point guard ingrained dominance in the series again. Twenty-three points and three steals out of Irving in Game 5, an engaged player who came home from the debilitation of Toronto. Around Irving, Love and James scored 25 and 23 points, respectively. Love was darting those effortless full-court outlet passes to LeBron, draining shots from inside and out, and both combined for five 3-pointers.
From a fractured kneecap to a team leader, Irving has never forgotten the injuries and the growing pains of being a former No. 1 pick on a losing team.
"We always knew when Kyrie got back, our team completes," Cavaliers veteran forward James Jones said.
This series has been the ultimate home-road contrast of these playoffs, and the pressure is on Cleveland to acquire a victory in Toronto and close out in six games. Toronto's dynamic backcourt of Lowry and DeMar DeRozan has found no traction to succeed together in Quicken Loans Arena, and as fabulous and full of energy as Bismack Biyombo has been at home, he's been equally dormant in Cleveland. The Cavaliers' hands were active on Wednesday (11 steals, 18 turnovers forced), their rebounding instincts were fully activated (48 rebounds to 27) and their three-point shots connected (10 to three). Yes, the crowd in Toronto had rattled Irving, admittedly, but now these Cavaliers will return to finish the task on Friday.
"Our communication in everything has to be a lot sharper, and we took a lot that we had to learn from those games [in Toronto]," Irving said.
After the return of James two years ago, Irving sat inside a gymnasium after a USA Basketball practice and poured out his soul and flaws, revealing he had yet to harness the qualities necessary to garner leadership status. As Irving told me then, "I haven't been a leader – not at all. I've just been a kid trying to figure it out." Even now, the kid is learning, finding his grasp on the challenges – and perhaps distractions – that come from road games in the postseason.
Irving had placed his cap on and walked toward a busy hallway to the parking lot late Wednesday, and James had stopped ahead of him to take a picture with a disabled fan. Irving looked back for a moment, and continued forward. Minutes earlier, LeBron and Irving had an exchange of appreciation, and more and more of these Cavaliers postgame news conferences have been about the distribution of credit: "We have a young superstar like this …" "This guy has experienced way more true road tests …" "It starts with the floor general …".
Irving and these Cavaliers had thumped the Raptors, a 40-point lead throughout vast parts of the second half, and the booming sounds of The North will come soon. "I feel more prepared" for Toronto, Irving said, and so he gripped his hat tight into the warm Cleveland night. For Kyrie Irving, another test of his greatness and mental fortitude awaits.
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