Respect is earned.
The talent of Kyrie Irving has never been in question. He can flat out score. However, that is sometimes part of the problem for the 24-year old. Irving can get a bucket for Irving, but he can’t get a bucket for anyone else. That, given his position, is often the biggest criticism Irving faces. However, when you have the greatest passing forward in the league dominating the ball, he doesn’t have to. Throughout the Finals, he averaged just 3.9 assists per game. However, James averaged 8.9 assists per game and often takes the ball out of his hands. There are only so many assists to dish out.
In his role, alongside James, Irving can play his natural role as a scorer. Irving’s major problem is often disappearing—having finished games with just 10 and 13 points throughout the playoffs—or simply being inefficient. Irving is a volume-shooter, a major flaw when you’re the second option on the team. As a team’s main offensive weapon, the offense will flow through you and the opportunity to shoot will be there. However, as the second option, those opportunities becomes less and less. Despite that, Irving still took more than 22 shots in eight out of the 21 games he played in.
Here’s the problem: an Irving miss means one less opportunity for LeBron James to get himself or a teammate an easy look. Efficiency matters. Obviously: every shot missed negates the opportunity for a make. The only reason this didn’t brutally hurt the Cavaliers is because Tristan Thompson is rebound-loving maniac.
However, Irving really impressed with his performance in the last five games of the NBA Finals, of which the Cavaliers won four. He averaged 30.8 PPG, 4.4 APG, 4.2 RPG and 1.8 SPG on 50.8% shooting from the floor and 46.7% shooting from deep. Irving truly rose to the occasion. Throughout the year there was much talk of who was better between Kyle Lowry and Irving; talks have now ceased.
LeBron James was great, but this was no Batman and Robin duo. This wasn’t a case of superhero and sidekick. That’s not say Irving’s input was as big as LeBron’s, but let’s not act like he was Boy Wonder either. Irving shot 71.4% in his explosive Game 5 performance, finishing with 41 points in arguably the greatest NBA Finals game by a duo in history.
In Game 6, his 17 first half points were huge in securing a 16-point lead at the half and eventually winning the game. Then Game 7 happened. In all honesty, by Game 7, LeBron James looked gassed. If there’s one major takeaway to note about Irving’s play, it’s that he may have finally learned how to not be a nuisance.
The Cavaliers need Irving’s scoring. They need him to take the ball and do what he does best: get a bucket. However, that’s not every possession. Sometimes, you have to get Love a touch. Sometimes, you need drive-and-kick action to avoid icing J.R. Smith. Everyone needs touches to remain engaged. James knows this, which is what makes him such a great floor general.
Too often did we see Irving go one-on-one when it wasn’t needed. Get Love a touch first; it’s the first quarter. Don’t kill the offense’s rhythm just as it’s getting started. Another common theme: dribbling up the court and taking a shot without anyone else even touching the ball. But Irving is learning to pick his spots and it’s working wonders for him. He did a phenomenal job of creating space from mid-range, where he often made the much bigger Klay Thompson look useless while he played flawless defense. Equally as important is his aggressiveness. A driving Irving is the best Irving. Uncle Drew might easily be the best finisher in the league; let me explain.
He has the best handles in the league, and it’s not really close. Saying he has the ball on a string doesn’t even do him justice. What makes him lethal with the ball is that he does NOT keep the ball within arm’s reach at all times, like most players do. Irving puts the ball where it needs to be, to avoid defenders (especially when splitting them), even if it means putting it three or four feet ahead of him. Then he goes and gets it. The ball isn’t limited within his reach and it allows him to slither out of trouble with easy, or through traffic.
At the rim, he has a better touch than anyone. He certainly isn’t going to finish over anyone like Russell Westbrook, but he can finish through you or around you. Most importantly: shot selection. Westbrook often throws up wild shots near the rim. That’s not too much of an issue for Irving. One of the only players in the league who might be better at finishing at the rim is his teammate.
Back to the point: he’s learning to pick his spots. In Game 7, James often looked like he was playing hot potato with how passive he was. Whether James was gassed or not confident in his shot anymore, Irving took on the responsibility to score. He consistently exposed Golden State’s awful transition defense, a result of cross-match-ups with Klay Thompson on Irving. He repeatedly poked the unanimous MVP’s eyes out when Thompson was screened off or on the bench. And, the biggest of them all was the dagger.
This might be the greatest go-ahead bucket in NBA history, to cap off an unbelievable comeback. They were down 3-1. It was Game 7. They were on the road. It was Draymond Green’s night. They weren’t supposed to be alive. It was in between the MVP’s eyes. Kyrie Irving wasn’t supposed to be this good. But he was and he did it.
Kyrie Irving earned his respect.