I must admit i thought it was all over. After Golden State left Cleveland with a 3-1 series lead I really thought the confetti would be falling at the Oracle Arena on Monday night. I had even begun preparing a post celebrating the Warrior’s record breaking season. Kyrie Irving and LeBron James had other ideas though, willing the Cavs to a 112-97 victory on the road and extending the series to a 6th game back in Cleveland on Thursday.
LeBron and Kyrie’s performance was historic, they combined for 82 of Cleveland’s 112 points and became the first teammates to both score 40 in a finals game. We have come to expect these types of performances from James, maybe not recently in Cleveland but they were fairly routine during his time on South Beach, his 45 point, 15 rebound, 5 assist performance in game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics comes to mind. That game was also a win or go home situation for James’ Heat team, and unsurprisingly James has the highest points average in elimination games of any player in NBA history. But like I said we have come to expect this from The King. Irving’s performance seems much more significant.
Unlike James Kyrie does not have a long resume of playoff heroics, last season was Irving’s first trip to the playoffs and he was severely hampered by injury. This year Irving has grown into the playoffs as part of Cleveland’s triple threat, along with James and Kevin Love. During the finals Irving has put in some great performances, including back to back 30 point efforts in games 3 and 4. Monday night however, was perhaps Irving’s career defining performance. In scoring 40 points whilst shooting over 70% from field Kyrie joined a seriously elite club. The only other player to achieve this feat in a finals game is legendary center Wilt Chamberlain, who did so in game 6 of 1970 finals against the New York Knicks. When you consider that as a centre the vast majority of Chamberlain’s shots would have been high percentage looks, taken from near the basket, Irving’s feat becomes even more impressive. The majority of Kyrie’s shots come from outside, where shooting at such a high percentage whilst shooting with enough volume to score 41 is practically unheard of.
Irving’s performance was a throwback to a different era of basketball, an era when isolation basketball was fashionable, when players who could create their own shot were in vogue, when ball movement and sharing the basketball were tantamount to Communism. But for one night at least, we were back in 90s, as Irving mesmerised us with a bewitching combination of crossovers, mid range jump shots and audacious finishes high off the glass. His mid range game, a skill that has almost disappeared from the NBA, constantly kept the Warrior’s defenders on their heels and Irving took advantage at will throughout the game.
Unfortunately for Irving and he Cavs there is a reason performances like this are becoming increasingly rare, they are simply unsustainable in the current NBA climate. The shots that Irving was taking, and making Monday night, will more often than not result in inefficient scoring and teams like the Warriors, part of NBA’s new Soviet Bloc, will eventually prevail with superior team basketball.
It appears that Irving’s heroics, much like Chamberlain’s 46 years ago, will be in vain. However, they do provide hope for LeBron James and the Cavs in the future. Irving seems to have an appetite for the big stage and his performances in the finals may convince James and Cleveland GM Dave Gilbert that their formula only needs tweaking, not overhauling. There are certainly issues to address, what to do with Kevin Love who has struggled massively in the finals, and finding some more players who can contribute at both ends of the floor.
But with Irving and James the Cavaliers have the basis of a contender for at least a couple more years. I think they would be foolish to blow it up now, just because they lost to perhaps the greatest team the NBA has ever seen.