After dealing with numerous injuries and having to bear the entire load of a cellar-dwelling Eastern Conference team, The King returned, and Irving was able to star as the perfect compliment to LeBron James. The 2014-15 season was when Uncle Drew showed all of his potential. He was the healthiest he had been since entering the league, and the 75 games played that year set a new career-high. His offensive game was beginning to take shape, and he was slowing evolving from an over-dribbling point guard to an all-around scoring machine.
From three-point land, Irving shot a career-best 41.5 percent, and his 21.7 points per game were the most he averaged since his sophomore season. As the postseason came along, Kyrie showed flashes of brilliance; flashes that he would shine in the playoffs throughout his career.
When James was in Miami, there wasn’t another player on those teams that you can compare to Irving. Dwyane Wade was there, but injuries were starting to bother him. After the 2011 Finals, Flash was almost an entirely different player. What Irving has is the ability to be a consistent, explosive threat for an entire 48 minutes — in the years in Miami, Wade was still a killer, but he wasn’t as dangerous as Irving is now.
In the 2015 Finals, it was a shame that we didn’t get to see Irving and Stephen Curry matchup for what would’ve been a seven-game series had he been healthy. Game 1, before Irving suffered his broken knee cap, was enough to see that Irving lives for the bright lights. Before exiting, his 23 points on 45.5 percent shooting, seven rebounds, six assists, and four steals were giving Curry a run for his money; Chef went for 26 on 10/20 shooting, four rebounds, and eight assists.
We know how that story ends.
This year, after spending the first 24 games on the bench, Kyrie looked like his regular self. He didn’t reinvent his game and instead emerged as the NBA’s most dangerous player off the dribble and also as one of the league’s best finishers in the paint — off balance floaters; wrong-foot, double clutch reverse layups; dazzling crossovers, he has them all.
Cleveland breezed through the Eastern Conference, finishing 12-2 through three rounds. Irving had noticeably elevated his game and appeared perpetually locked in from downtown. His three-point percentage raised from 32 percent to 45.6 through those 14 games, and almost equaled LeBron’s scoring output of 24.6 points. Although he put up better numbers when compared to the regular season, it wouldn’t have been blasphemous to say that he was still James’ sidekick, since LeBron had the better all-around performances.
I’m not sure what happened to Kyrie once the Finals rolled around, but he just looked like an entirely different player. Obviously, he was relishing the chance to matchup against the back-to-back MVP, who was being praised as the NBA’s best point guard and a revolutionary. It was very rare to see Steph defend Kyrie, but Golden State switched a lot of their screens on the perimeter, and when the two did matchup, Irving attacked every chance he got.
It worked, too.
Game 1 was a sluggish start for Kyrie, who shot just 7/22 but did tally 26 on 11/12 from the charity stripe because of his vehement attack. The second game was way different, and the Cavaliers got waxed because of lackluster effort. In Cleveland’s 30-point Game 3 blowout, Irving netted his first 30-point Finals game and was just two points shy of matching James’ total.
As for Games 5 and 7, it’s debatable that Irving was more clutch than LeBron was down the stretch. And that’s what James has been missing all this time. By no means is LeBron incapable of making plays late in games, as evidenced by Game 6, but Kyrie has that cold-blooded killer mentality whenever he’s on the court. At times, LeBron is more passive. On top of being more clutch than LeBron, he out-MVPed the reigning MVP when it mattered.
Game 5 (the game when both he and James went for 41) was the starting line, and, with James struggling in the fourth, Kyrie Irving took over and scored 12 points while being guarded by a combination of Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry — it wasn’t just any 12 points, though. It was 12 points scored on 55% shooting. It didn’t stop with the offense, either. For a majority of the time on defense, Irving would take the challenge of guarding the MVP and Curry was just 3/8 with seven points in the fourth.
The lights were the brightest in the seventh game: will the Cavaliers make history by coming back from a 3-1 deficit, or will the Warriors repeat as champs and finish the greatest season ever? Either way, the superstars came out. Collectively, Game 7 was the worst offensive showing we had seen from both teams. Draymond Green was the only player who had an efficient night scoring, and, for some reason hardly touched the ball in the fourth.
The greats make plays when it counts, and the shot that Irving made with less than a minute left cemented him as a bona fide superstar. On a night where he just didn’t have it, Curry elected to continue shooting down the stretch and finished 1/6 in the fourth. Uncle Drew wasn’t much better, but that late three was all that he needed.
Irving’s 27.1 points per game helped LeBron bear the weight of Kevin Love, who did almost nothing offensively for the Cavaliers. On a grander scale, he and LeBron evenly split the load of the city of Cleveland as they ended their 52-year championship drought.
In just seven games, Kyrie Irving transformed into a clutch, big-time shot maker. Right in front of the MVP no less.