Going into Game 4 this morning I exchanged texts with my buddy Colin, about how I felt this was probably going to be a blowout sweep, but, my instinct said, LeBron James and Kyrie James are going to put on a freakin’ clinic.
I should’ve, gone with my instinct.
Kyrie exploded for 40 points in a performance reminiscent of his 41-point outburst in the elimination game last Finals. To put that number in perspective, Irving had 28 points in the first half on 79% shooting from the field. Seventy. Nine. Yes.
In just two seasons, Irving has established himself as a force to reckon with in Finals elimination games.
Then you have to remind yourself, this kid is just 24.
The Savior Syndrome
Drafted No. 1 in 2011, Irving joined a team and an organization that was reeling from the loss of the world’s best player at the time. With LeBron gone, the Cavaliers finished with the second worst record in the NBA (19-63). They snagged the No. 1 pick and put their hopes on Irving’s slender shoulders. They believed the 19-yr old phenom he would deliver them to the Promised Land once again. Owner Dan Gilbert damn near guaranteed the city of Cleveland would win a championship before the “king” won his first.
That Kyrie was an immensely gifted basketball player was evident from the moment he stepped on an NBA court. His ability to score the ball from difficult spots and impossible angles soon took the league by storm. Whatever Kyrie does with the ball is closer to sorcery than it is to basketball. The rim and the ball, both, are his best friends. He knows, at any given point, where they are, where they will be, and how they can be maneuvered to meet and deliver exactly the result he desires.
However, as prolific as a scorer Kyrie was, expecting him to deliver a championship to a franchise that had just lost the best player in the world is silly. More so, when the next best players on the Cavaliers those three seasons were Antawn Jamison (2012), Anderson Varejao and Dion Waiters (2013, 2014) and Luol Deng (2014). For the three seasons after his arrival, Despite the occasional brilliance, Irving’s eyes and body language conveyed what everyone feared, he needed help. Irving was left wondering when Gilbert would make good on his guarantee.
LeBron’s Arrival And The Promised Land
LeBron’s arrival signalled a new era in Cleveland and the NBA as a whole. He had spent two seasons and got a deeper understanding what it took to win at the highest level. He needed to feel what it felt like to be a champion. Even better, he also felt what it was like to be dethroned as champion.
So grateful were the Cavaliers’ organization for LeBron’s return that, not only did they agree to him signing just a one year contract, but they gave the two-time NBA champion superstar the reigns to assemble the team of his choice.
LeBron immediately set to work. First order to business: trade Wiggins and other key pieces to acquire Kevin Love. With everything we have seen from Kevin Love in these past three years, it is easy to forget that in the season before he was traded to Cleveland, Love averaged 26 points and 12 rebounds a game. He was a certified beast. Armed with the most complete offensive arsenal since Carmelo Anthony, Love was one of the ten players in the NBA.
Kyrie’s numbers, on the other hand, had dipped the previous season. He was showing signs of frustration with having to fill LeBron’s void, to carry a team, and to meet expectations. He just wanted to play basketball. He loved having the ball in his hands without having to worry about anything else. and casting doubt over whether Cavs even really had a big three.
Kyrie though, had other plans.
Finally able to shed the burden of carrying a team, he focused on what he does best, unleash holy hell on one-on-one isolation plays. No more did he worry about bringing the ball up, (then) Dellavadova did. No more did he have to worry about the rebound after the shot, Love and Thompson were gonna clean up. No more did he have to worry about being the star, he had LeBron.
No matter how you look at it, allowing Kyrie to blossom into this lethal assassin while bring Kevin Love over and convincing him to become the third wheel is one of LeBron’s greatest achievements.
Legacy Of The Sidekick
LeBron’s return also put an asterix on Kyrie’s greatness. To most it seemed that Kyrie needed LeBron to win a championship. That he could not do it on his own.
That is plain unfair.
Firstly, It takes away from the fact, that up until last season where he missed 29 games, Kyrie has stayed consistently good his entire career. Buoyed with the confidence he gained with the shot last Finals, Kyrie blazed into to this season, scoring a career high 25 points a game, despite a great season from Kevin Love and a legendary one from LeBron James.
Secondly, NBA History is filled with stories like Kyrie’s. Player’s who on their own would have been good, but never great. Scottie Pippen clearly needed Jordan after trying to carry the Bulls by himself in 1994. John Stockton, one of the five best point guards in NBA history would not have been relevant if he did not have Karl Malone, and of course, Shaq needed Kobe (and Dwyane Wade).
Thirdly, no one does it alone. NBA history is witness to the fact that Bill Russell needed Bob Cousy, that Kareen Abdul-Jabbar needed Oscar Robertson (Bucks) and Magic Johnson (Lakers), That Larry Bird need Kevin Mchale, that Jordan needed Pippen, that Steph Curry needed Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, and that even Wade and LeBron needed each other.
And sure, Kyrie may not ever be the best player on a championship team. But when you have the opportunity to run alongside one of the greatest players in NBA history, you don’t worry about legacy. You enjoy the game. LeBron draws so much attention and creates so much space, that it allows someone with Kyrie’s scoring and dribbling abilities to shine.
I distinctly remember watching game 4 and feeling my heart sink every time Kyrie had the ball, because he could do no wrong with it. No other player, not even Harden, KD, Curry, or LeBron elicits that kind of emotion in me. I kept telling myself, “he is so good, it is unfair.”
Irving’s biggest triumph though, is earning the trust of LeBron. It is telling that, with the NBA Championship on the line, LeBron trusted Irving with the ball and the last shot, something that took Jordan until the last shot of Game 5 in the ‘91 Finals to learn.
We all know how that turned out.