John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
A 30-footer in Toronto adds some more flavor to Kyrie Irving's All-Star season and all-time great career start.
TORONTO - Kyrie Irving is unfair.
He's unfair to those trying to guard him. With the ball in his hands, the Cleveland Cavaliers' stunning sophomore has virtually no weaknesses. His handle, as tight as anyone's, allows him to push, pull, probe and, the moment you make a mistake, pounce. He hits three-pointers, runners, pull-up jumpers, layups. He opens up opportunities for others. Ambidextrous and adept with angles, he's able to finish in traffic and put you in the penalty. Even if you play him perfectly.
On Saturday night, Irving was particularly unfair to Alan Anderson. Tasked with checking the newly-named All-Star with the clock ticking down and his team up two, Anderson positioned himself at the three-point line. Instead of trying to take him to the basket, Irving took his chances. From almost 30 feet out, he released it cleanly, confidently, holding his follow through until the ball dropped through the hoop, drilling the deepest of his five game-winners within the past 12 months.
"That's a big-time play," said teammate Shaun Livingston, who can be seen on SportsCenter with his arms raised before the shot went in. "At 20 years old, to have that type of poise, that's a veteran type play. That's something Kobe would do. That's something Sam Cassell did when he played. Three-pointer, on the road, let's go home, we're not going to overtime. Great shot, rhythm shot. He misses, still a good shot. That's a big-time, big-time play."
Irving is unfair to his peers who don't do things like that. In your second year you're supposed to be up and down, hot and cold, not spoken of in the same breath as superstars like Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul. As coaches preach patience with players, Irving spoils it, cooly and calmly carrying Cleveland in crunch time. Consistently.
"The fact that he's doing it at 20 is incredible," said Cavaliers forward Luke Walton, a teammate of Bryant's for more than eight seasons. "He has the potential to be on a list with those type of players and you don't want to say that lightly. But he definitely has that potential. He's only 20, a year and a half in the league -- he's got a long way to go. But he's one of the few players that truly could, when it's all said and done, be one of those type of guys."
"He is who we thought he was," said swingman C.J. Miles. "I knew he was going to be able to make a play if they didn't double him, make him get off of it. He's showing the reason why he's an All-Star, why the coaches chose him and why he gets the respect he does. He makes plays. He does what we need him to do to win games."
Irving likes being looked at as the team's leader. Late in games, he knows he's earned the expectation that he'll have the ball. He enjoys all the eyes on him.
"I just look at all my teammates, look at all their faces," Irving said. "They have the trust in me. They believe in me, they've seen me do it before. It makes it easier down the stretch. Whether I make or miss it's just a game at the end of the day. We're trying to win the game but make or miss we're still going home teammates. That's all it's about."
"Besides the fact that's he's really really good, he believes it," said Miles. "He believes that, ‘If I get a look at this basket, I'm going to win the game.' He believes that you can't stop him. As long as he believes it, it's going to be true."
The reigning Rookie of the Year began his career about as successfully as you can, aside from the losing. The Cavaliers finished 21-45 last year but Irving stuffed stat sheets and proved to himself and the league he belonged. Head coach Byron Scott empowered him, giving him the keys in the clutch and setting him up for this All-Star campaign.
"That's a big thing, I think, for any player that feels they can play and play their game freely and know that he has a coach that understands there's going to be mistakes made ... and allows you to be able to play through them," said Miles.
This season Irving's making fewer mistakes and using more possessions. He's more aggressive and more efficient, converting shots that shouldn't be high-percentage.
"Sometimes he'll shoot it and [I'll think], ‘That's a terrible shot' and then all of a sudden he makes it and I'm like, ‘Alright, that's kind of impressive,'" said Cavs center Tyler Zeller. "He'll make it look easy. I don't know if there is a terrible shot for him anymore."
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Rare is the player that can turn veteran teammates into spectators, into fans. Rarer still is one who can do it on a team at the bottom of its division, but Irving's excellence is making what could be a struggle of a season into an enjoyable experience.
"It's awesome," Walton said of seeing Irving develop and dominate up close. "He's a young, talented player. Great kid. Great leader. And it's so much fun to see the success he's having and to see him continue to just get better and better, as a basketball player and a basketball fan, it's really fun to watch."
"It's amazing," said Miles. "I just laugh sometimes, just watching some of the stuff he does and some of the shots he makes. Just seeing him ... gain even more and more confidence. Not that he wasn't confident, but to see in his body language and see, like, ‘I got it.' Understanding that you got it is totally different than having it, if that makes sense. I think once you understand you got it, it's tough."
What's funny is Irving's performance at the Air Canada Centre wasn't a masterpiece by his soaring standards. With one shot he shook the crowd into stunned silence, but it wasn't even his second-best game in the past week. On Friday he scored 35 points on 12-for-17 shooting to lead Cleveland back from a 20-point third quarter deficit and beat the Milwaukee Bucks. Twenty-four of those points came in the second half. Three days prior, he dropped 40 on the Boston Celtics on 16-for-24 shooting. He scored 15 points in the fourth quarter, 11 in the final 2:33.
At the end of three quarters in Toronto, Irving had 20 points but he needed 21 shots to get them. His 12 points on 4-for-5 shooting in the fourth were typically timely -- in addition to the three to win it, he accelerated for a one-man fast break and switched hands spectacularly mid-air for a game-tying layup with 34 seconds left. But he also turned the ball over twice in the last 2:16. Directly preceding the game-winner, he allowed an Amir Johnson screen to take him out of the play, setting up a Jose Calderon go-ahead layup.
"It doesn't affect him," said Miles. "I think that's the biggest thing is don't let one mistake carry and make you make another mistake."
Postgame, Irving was more satisfied with beating the Raptors for the first time in his career than impressed with his heroics. Asked postgame if he surprised himself, Irving said, "A little."
Miles said the only way Irving can surprise him now is if he starts dunking on people. "He could shoot it backwards from halfcourt at this point and I'd kind of be like, ‘Yeah. It's Kyrie.'"