Outside of his locker — as he casually swapped his jersey for a t-shirt and hoodie, and his player exclusive Nike high-tops for a pair of more casual classics from the same company – Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving joked as he shared a story with teammate Alonzo Gee.
The crux of the smile-inducing story was that Irving was being temporarily detained by a security clerk who was evidently unaware of the status obtained by the 6-foot-3-inch reigning NBA Rookie of the Year.
The story was short, but Irving’s punch line was laced with as much confusion and surprise as it was innocence.
“But I’m Kyrie,” Irving stated in his humbled state, merely looking to gain access to his ultimate destination.
The two players shared a laugh given that Irving is sponsored by Nike, has been in commercials for Foot Locker, graced the cover of the most recent ESPN The Magazine and will even get a spot during the impending Super Bowl. Gee would go on to chat with teammate Tristan Thompson. Irving would go on to address the media horde that had been slowly circling him for the preceding moments, providing him as much time as he needed to unwind from the last 48 minutes of in-game action, minutes that led to Irving dropping 40 points on an aging and seemingly helpless Boston Celtics in what would be the Cavaliers’ 11th win of the season.
Though he would come out swinging after the opening tip – scoring 19 points in the first quarter alone – it would be the fourth quarter of this night that could serve to be a turning point in the Cavaliers’ season. After countless games have been lost in the final period, against teams both good and bad, it would be Irving who would score 15 more points in the final eight minutes of the period. He would do so with a barrage: A mid-range jumper; several driving lay-ups including one that left Celtics star swingman Paul Pierce with his legs in a pretzel after a trio of moves rendered him useless as a defender; trips to the free throw line; and the play.
With just over three minutes remaining in a one-point game, Boston’s scowling forward Kevin Garnett – who had been bailed out by whistles for a good portion of the evening – unleashed an 16-foot jump shot that would catch the back of the rim before landing in the hands of teammate, and fellow All-Star starter, Rajon Rondo. Rondo attempted to pass the ball to the top of the key where it would sail past all of his teammates and down the court. Only Rondo and Irving would scamper after the ball which was bouncing toward toward the corner adjacent from the Cavaliers bench. As Rondo hurled his body out of bounds in attempt to save the ball and throw it off of Irving’s legs to retain possession, the Cavaliers guard stopped on a dime, collected himself and merely caught the redirected ball. As it would be only these two men on the Cavaliers’ side of the floor, it led to two easy points. The Cavs would never look back.
“We’re two fast point guards and one of us was going to get it,” Irving said of the play. As he sprinted the entire court in lockstep with Rondo, Irving had no plans of playing foil to the would-be save. Instead, a player not known for his sneaky quickness, Irving’s game-long aggression quickly gave way to instinct, which quickly gave way to an unabated lay-up.
“Obviously, you don’t throw the ball to Kyrie, but my question to our team was, ‘Where was everyone else?’” said Boston head coach Doc Rivers. When asked what happened in the fourth quarter that would prove to be the difference in the ultimate result of the contest, Rivers boiled it down to base elements. “Kyrie Irving happened,” he said.
The two points amassed via this momentum-shifting lay-in would be a pair of the 15 Irving scoring in the final eight minutes and would be 15 of his team’s final 19 points in the contest. The 40 points scored on this night represented the first time a player would provide as much in a regular season win against the Celtics since Kobe Bryant eclipsed that mark in 2007. The last three men to record at least 40 points and five assists against the Celtics: Bryant, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James. If this company isn’t prestigious enough, consider that at the age of 20 years, 305 days old, Irving became the youngest player ever to score 40 points in a game against the Celtics.
“He was pretty good,” Cavs head coach Byron Scott said with a smile. “I think he sets the tone. When he’s aggressive, everyone picks up on that. When he’s in the game and he’s kind of passive just trying to get everyone involved, which is a point guard’s job, I want him to be aggressive in trying to do that. I thought tonight he was pretty much aggressive the whole game. That’s the type of player that we need out there. He’s obviously capable of doing that every single night. When he’s aggressive, he makes us a better basketball team.”
The game started out with him drawing a foul in mid-air, sinking both of his free throws. He would go on to make his next four shots, ranging from a driving lay-in all the way out to a 26-foot three-point attempt and everything in between. He would set up teammates — be they the high-flying Tristan Thompson or otherwise grounded Luke Walton for alley-oops. He would put his team on his back in the most crucial of times, making would-be opponents look silly in the interim, staying aggressive throughout and letting his teammates feed off of this 190-pound ball of silent-but-lethal energy. The debate will range on if the 20-year old, who has only managed to win 11 games in an otherwise stellar season, is a legitimate superstar. He may not be the most recognized face, at least when it comes to clerks at a security desk engaging with a 20-year old in an unassuming zip-up hooded sweatshirt, jeans and low-top Nikes. He shoul be on his way to Houston as an All-Star reserve in just his second year in the league, being among the NBA’s best in scoring while perpetually tightening his grip on the future of the point guard position.
Photo: Scott Sargent/WFNY; shot chart via ESPN Stats/Info