Thad Matta, the Ohio State Buckeyes men’s basketball coach, sat courtside along with a suit-and-tied Fred McLeod and Austin Carr. The three men discussed Columbus and Ohio State, former Buckeye and Naismith Award winner Evan Turner, the Cavaliers, and Kyrie Irving. Matta shared an small anecdote about a tournament in which Irving played as a high school Junior, one which started to open the eyes of Division I programs across the country. Irving would ultimately choose to attend Duke University, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying on the part of Matta who briefly described meeting Irving and his father in attempt to get the dynamic point guard in Scarlet and Grey.
The smile-inducing part was not that Matta had agreed that Irving was a special player, it was what Irving was doing on the floor throughout this discussion: Dazzling crossover dribbles, pinpoint passes, floor-running and impeccable execution on drives and fast breaks—actions which made it appear like one was watching the director’s commentary cut of a movie, actions which served as a stark reminder as to why, despite his questionable injury history, Irving was recently ranked as the No. 8 player in the NBA by ESPN.
The result was a 104-93 preseason victory over the Philadelphia 76ers in front of a Columbus, Ohio crowd. Kyrie Irving finished with 17 points (on just 10 shots) and 12 assists in almost 29 minutes, spending the entire fourth quarter as a distributor and a defender; the other three quarters were spent abusing the Philadelphia backcourt and slicing past a dizzy Spencer Hawes.
“I’ve been attacking every game, just finding my spots on the offensive end and continuing to get better defensively and pressure these point guards and get out in transition,” said Irving who, when not shooting, running or passing was playing passing lanes and diving on the floor for loose balls. “Guys made shots tonight for me and things went well on that end. Coming out of halftime, I feel like we picked up defensive pressure and got some shots to go down. Our bigs were setting good screens and just getting me open and guys were knocking down shots.”
Irving is the perfect marriage of Fun to Watch and Incredibly Talented. His handle seems to have improved despite being at an elite level a season ago. The ball follows him like a dog, rarely wandering outside of his reach; when it does, he whistles and it returns, tail wagging, ignoring anyone else who dare attempt to distract. There is no denying that Irving was forced to front much of the scoring load over the course of his first two seasons in the NBA. If last night’s contest were a regular season game, it would have tied Irving’s career-high mark in assists—only five times did he even reach double figures last season, twice more than a season prior.
“He’s about to explode,” Cavs guard CJ Miles said of Irving at the team’s Media Day. “He can obviously take over games, but he’s really starting to see the whole picture, the ‘I can do pretty much whatever I want to do on the basketball court,’ which is scary. Talent wise, he’s already there. Now the things he is doing are going to make everyone better.”
Cavs coach Mike Brown referred to Kyrie as “big” for his willingness and desire to set his teammates up for success. Of the 38 field goals converted by the Wine and Gold, 30 of them were assisted through simple sets, basic ball movement and tactical and opportunistic player rotations. When the Cavaliers weren’t running, the offensive sets included moving the ball to both sides of the court multiple times before a shot was taken, forcing the Sixers defenders to be moving along with it. This approach led to 22 turnovers, but it was one that displayed an offense that was non-existent during Brown’s first tenure with the team. There were even times when Irving played alongside point guard Matthew Dellavedova, serving as the team’s shooting guard despite standing at barely 6-feet-3-inches, rolling off of screens and forcing the defense to account for his lethal shooting.
“For the first in my first three years, I can play (both guard spots) comfortably now,” Irving said of the experiment. “I know all of the positions on the floor, especially the two spot. It allows me to not exert some much energy dribbling the ball, especially at the top of the key. I get to come off some screens. It’s something that we go through every day at practice. Me being at the ‘two spot’ opens up the lane for our bigs and our shooters in the corner.”
Kyrie Irving has already endeavored to increase his assist total from its current career average of 5.7 per game. Much of this will be up to Chris Grant, providing the All-Star point guard with efficient bodies; the rest will be up to Brown to ensure that his team is put in the best place for it to flourish. Irving may not have attended Ohio State for his 11 collegiate games, but the work he put in on Monday night was more than enough for the Columbus crowd. It was just a preseason game that also happened to be against a team that is expected to be among the dregs of the league come this summer, but it was a game that should easily set the stage for the team’s Opening Night which stands just a little over a week away.
photo via Adam Cairns / The Columbus Dispatch