My favorite Kyrie Irving play from his 42-point Game 4 explosion happened midway through the third quarter. He sent Tyler Zeller the wrong way so quickly that Zeller had a muscle spasm and almost tripped over himself. After being embarrassed on national television, the other Zeller brother felt morally obligated to applaud the man who treated his ankles like Sid Phillips treated his toys.
Crossed up Tyler Zeller so badly that he almost turned him into a Plumlee pic.twitter.com/mmeGxEsL9L— Zito (@_Zeets) May 24, 2017
This is quintessential Kyrie. LeBron James has a new Dwyane Wade, and it’s a 25-year-old Australian who thinks the Earth is flat.
But where Wade was waning and had to accept a “demotion” to the sidekick role for the team to prosper, that secondary job is perfect for Irving. James and Irving (and even Kevin Love) can all have great performances in the same game, but the best illustration of Irving’s greatness is when James is struggling. That’s when the Cavaliers get to unleash one of the most obvious offensive weapons in the league.
In Game 3 against the Celtics, James played horribly and Cleveland blew a double-digit lead to lose. In Game 4, James had a rough time in the first half, accumulating four quick fouls and turning the ball over several times. The glass to the panic button was subsequently broken, and sweaty hands hovered over it. We were returning to the pre-Heat era LeBron conversation, which was mind-numbing in its disregard for logic and reason.
Then Kyrie Irving took over.
Irving did the most merciful thing one could do for James: He allowed him to fail and then find himself later. In doing so, Irving put a stop to the stupidest reaction to a bad game-and-a-half in recent memory. And he did this by playing his sidekick role perfectly.
Irving’s God-Mode setting is the best version of hero ball in the league. It’s when the Cavaliers, in need of points, do away with the excesses of the game and go for the straightest path to get buckets. The burden of team play is removed and Irving’s only task is to score one-on-one, which he does better than almost anyone in the league. This allows Irving’s teammates to relax and join the rest of the audience in being entertained. It becomes a relief for James and their teammates, not a burden.
Irving is unpredictable in the best ways possible. He can shoot threes, nail mid-range shots and kiss beautiful layups off the glass. He gets to his shots because he has the best handles in the league. Irving is liable to put defenders on skates or leave them twisted, embarrassed, and swiping in vain as he darts right by. He’s so quick that any little space yielded becomes a big advantage for him. This power invokes a clear anxiety from his defenders, which leaves them uncertain and often defeated before he even does anything.
When Irving does go past his defender, he doesn’t stick with the same go-to finishing move. His unpredictability is in letting the circumstances around him dictate the solution. He scans the set of limbs blocking his way, analyzes available angles, contorts his own body to create the tiniest amount of space, and somehow gets the ball on the rim. He is a world-class improviser.
After embarrassing Zeller with the crossover, Irving was injured while making a difficult shot on the break toward the end of the third quarter. He had stepped on the defender’s foot on his way up and came down holding his ankle in pain.
From that point on, Irving ran like he was wiping his feet at the door. When he wasn’t taking those mini-steps, he often grimaced and cringed.
Yet somehow, he continued to make circus after circus shot. Even an injured Kyrie Irving is still almost unstoppable. He finished the third quarter with a deep three-pointer that put Cleveland up by seven and gave it control of the game.
When it was all said and done, Irving finished with 42 points, most of which came when he needed to carry the offensive burden with James struggling and in foul trouble. He had 36 points after James’ fourth foul and 21 on 9-of-10 shooting in the third. Suddenly, we’re not fending off hot takes about James shrinking from the moment.
Irving didn’t need this game to prove his greatness. Last year’s NBA Finals cemented that.
But it was still a wonderful showcase of his status as LeBron’s new Wade. Irving can thrive side by side with James and Love as part of the greater trio, but he’s most valuable in the rare cases that James struggles. When the team just needs points from somewhere with their alpha off, the simplest solution is to give Irving the ball and let him be the superstar that he is. Letting him play isolation ball in dire times is the most sensible and successful decision the Cavaliers can make.
That’s a luxury James will never take for granted.