A three-ball from the top of the key. A cross-over move from the left elbow that found fellow rookie guard Brandon Knight wondering what the heck just happened as the ball fell through the nylon. And an Alonzo Gee steal turned into a 360-degree, over-the-shoulder, no-look pass back to the athletic wing for the unabated dunk.
The entire sequence took roughly one game minute, but it was just the momentum the Cleveland Cavaliers needed to extend a lead against the Detroit Pistons, a lead they would never relinquish thanks to consistent defensive efforts across the board coupled with timely conversions on the offensive end. A lead that would ultimately end in a one-point win at home — their second consecutive win by the narrowest of margins.
“I feed off the energy of my teammates and the crowd,” said Irving. “When you have the confidence of your teammates going down the stretch, it’s easier to make those plays.”
It was an Antawn Jamison three-pointer approximately two minutes earlier would be the bucket needed to cap the comeback. The Cavs trailing by 17 at one point in the contest, down double digits heading in to the fourth quarter, needed everything to fall their way. A relatively sloppy contest otherwise, it was Jamison (29 points in the first three periods) who would be credited with keeping the Wine and Gold in the game, only to have Irving and Gee finish the sandwich in the fourth.
Thirty combined points were delivered from the 19-year-old point guard and a kid who was floating about the NBDL just 15 months earlier. As he has in several other games this season, Irving was relatively shy with his shot, only taking a handful of attempts over the course of the first three quarters only to unleash the hounds once there were 12 minutes remaining. He did it from all angles; lay-ins — including the one described above as well as a beautiful conversion where the guard leapt from the right hash, changed hands in mid-air and dropped it in behind the rim with his left — three-pointers and free throws. After three quarters of otherwise uninspiring play, Kyrie Irving took advantage of every single fourth-quarter possession, “willing” the Wine and Gold to the win.
“I just wanted to control the game the best I could,” said the Cavs’ top draft pick. “I tried to get open shots for my teammates. As many shots as I would’ve like to of gone in, it didn’t happen tonight, but going into the fourth, I took what the defense gave me and it worked out.”
Worked out it did. This young team won it’s fifth contest of the season after falling behind by double figuires. Irving, who is well beyond his years from a leadership standpoint, played the fourth quarter as if he was harnessing injured teammate Anderson Varejao. Wherein the Brazilian big man can keep things electric for 48 minutes, it appears that Irving has the ability to merely flip a switch and take over.
“Kyrie said he was gonna turn it up, and he did,” said Gee. “He turned it up. He picked it up for us, and we’re gonna follow him.”
It’s easy to say that the Cavaliers should not be winning these sort of contests due to draft position, similar to the Browns squeaking out a 6-3 barnburner against the Seattle Seahawks — coming out the victor merely reflects relative superiority. But had the Cavaliers not won in the matter in which it did, with key contributions from would-be integral members of this team’s future, it would signal warning signs that could not be rectified by adding another 19- or 20-year old ingredient into the pot. You can’t draft chemistry.
Irving taking this unit, with the help of Gee and a couple key defensive plays by Tristan Thompson (some that won’t show up in the box score, including forcing a would-be Ben Gordon game-winner to the baseline), on to his still-developing shoulders and carrying them to a win is a very, very good thing. Give a fist pump when an Irving three-ball finds the bottom. Sit back and smile when he subsequently makes the fourth-overall pick leave his ankles at the free throw line.
Accept the losses, but desire the wins. Even if they do have to come in the final seconds against one of the worst teams in the NBA.
(Photo via David Liam Kyle/Getty Images)