With approximately eight minutes to go in the fourth quarter on a Monday night in Memphis, Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving cheered as his teammate Samardo Samuels dropped in a finger roll, bringing their team within one point of a back-and-forth contest against an opponent many feel could challenge for the Western Conference finals. Like clockwork, he then began to affix his body armor. Knee pads were properly positioned, shin guards raised from resting on his Nike high-tops to their location of utility.
But Irving waited. He then waiting some more.
The fourth quarter wizardry to which Cavalier fans have grown accustomed was put on hold as Cleveland head coach Byron Scott kept his prize possession on the sideline, watching as teammates Tristan Thompson and Antawn Jamison would retake the floor. Having been given some rest with three minutes left in the third quarter, Irving would not join his four starting teammates until there were just over four game minutes remaining.
The result would net one field goal attempt — a missed three-pointer — sandwiched by a slew of free throw attempts. Irving’s penetration game was alive and well, getting to the free throw line after a hellacious move was placed on an unsuspecting Mark Gasol, but the other aspects of the rookie’s otherwise dominating skill set had seemingly been cooled off by the prolonged rest including a very rare two missed free throws with his team down one point. The Cavaliers would lose 109-101 to the playoff-bound Memphis Grizzlies.
“I thought I would come back a little earlier than I did,” Irving said. “But I respect Coach Scott’s decision. I know he’s looking out for me.”
Irving would go on to score 25 points with nary a fourth-quarter field goal. He was 10-of-16 from the floor, draining a handful of three-pointers as well as his typical array of lay-ins with both hands coupled with floaters off of the glass. What Irving was unable to do in the fourth quarter, he provided in the opening set. Behind-the-backs and cross-overs and jab steps, Irving showed absolutely no signs of the shoulder injury which kept him out of action for the bulk of April.
“I was just taking what the defense gave me, making simple basketball plays and feeding off my teammates,” said Irving who finished the quarter with 13 points, three assists and a steal. “It’s kind of what I do every single game. It was one of the best quarters that we’ve had throughout the season.”
Blow for blow, the 190-pound point guard kept a woebegone Cavaliers team in lockstep with the Grizzlies, a team which could potentially finish as the fourth-best unit in the Western Conference. A competitor, Irving naturally wanted to check back into the contest to help his team win their second game in the last four nights. But he also understands the importance of his long-term health as well as the benefits of falling just short when the backboards light up for the last time.
One week ago, shutting Irving down for the remainder of the season was considered an option. On Monday night, he was among team-leaders in minutes played despite sitting out much of the fourth quarter. He has little left to prove this season, a player who could potentially win the Rookie of the Year award by an unanimous vote. If Irving was confronted by the “rookie wall” at any point this season, he blew through it like the Juggernaut, amassing a list of opposing would-be defenders’ names.
The Cavaliers will take to Quicken Loans Arena for one final time this season. It would make sense for Scott to at least dress Irving on what will be “Fan Appreciation Night.” How much Irving will play, however, remains to be seen. If what occurred on Monday night is merely the beginning of a pattern as the team begins to taper off the playing time of select individuals, Irving’s knee pads and shin guards could be found awaiting application a lot longer than the first-overall pick had grown used to.
After Thursday, he’ll be waiting even longer.
Photo: John Kuntz, The Plain Dealer