By Jesse Blanchard
Approaching the final two minutes of Game 4, Kyrie Irving received the ball from LeBron James near the half-court line with rookie Patrick McCaw defending. The Cleveland Cavaliers point guard took two nonchalant dribbles to his right, then paused with a little hop in his step.
Within that moment of hesitation from Irving, one could see the countless myriad of possibilities registering across McCaw’s posture, freezing the Golden State Warriors’ rookie in his tracks.
From that hesitation, Irving could cut against the grain into a razor sharp crossover or explode to his right. Each of those two choices branch out into an endless number of options at Irving’s disposal, from spins to stutter steps and pull-ups, and no one in the NBA chains together these actions as brutally and effortlessly as Kyrie Irving.
With four other Cavaliers players spaced out to the 3-point line, there would be no help zones to lead Irving to, even if McCaw had the ability to corral him. Instead, when Irving came out of his stance, McCaw joined him by coming out of his, beginning to reach as if to sit on the crossover. That was all Irving needed to take one hard dribble to his right to create space, rise up and drill the dagger 3-pointer to complete his 40-point performance in the Cavaliers’ 137-116 win.
Kyrie ices Game 4 with the 3. pic.twitter.com/15c2J29uaQ
— RealGM (@RealGM) June 10, 2017
“ has just been very special in closeout games, on both sides,” LeBron James said. “I said that over and over again, that he’s always been built for the biggest moments, and tonight he showed that once again. It’s not surprising, he’s just that special.”
Kyrie Irving is an artist. Well, all point guards are born artists. While anyone can learn the tools of the trade, from the intricacies of an in-and-out dribble to the gather and release of a catch-and-shoot jumper—just as anyone can learn painting techniques, how to string together notes or remember lines in a play—it takes an inherent talent to weave them together into something more than the sum of its parts.
Artists exist a beat or two off the normal perspective of reality. Anyone can complete a paint-by numbers-portrait that’s technically precise. It takes another talent altogether to take those same techniques and bend them to produce something that reveals more truth than reality itself; playing with the tempo or rhythm of a song to create stress or tranquility to invoke emotion; exaggerating a line or playing with a color scheme; changing the inflection of a word to give more depth to a character in a play.
The great ones manage to do these things in such a unique fashion, they develop a signature style all their own. In basketball, Stephen Curry’s handle is fluidity personified, throwing together layers of subtle gradation built around a striking jump shot. Chris Paul’s work is like a blueprint, technically precise down to the last detail with knowledge of how different lines play for the eye in function and form.
Kyrie Irving’s work is bold and unapologetic. He dabbles in blending and plays with gradation to lure opponents into a false sense of security, stressing a mind that knows it should be on edge, only to contrast it with jarring angles and disruptive patterns.
— NBA (@NBA) June 10, 2017
Where most try to hide their work, Irving gleefully shows the seams of his own, inviting an opponent to pull at the string to try and unravel his dribble in an intricate trap. The inventiveness comes through in his handle and his finishes at the rim, which are among the best ever.
Since everyone always asks "how does Kyrie make those layups?" pic.twitter.com/xBQvqsKkKC
— 🅱️🅱️🅱️randon 🔌 (@Jus1Nyt) June 8, 2017
“I just have an imagination,” Irving told Jared Dubin of Vice Sports, discussing his finishing ability. “I’m willing to try them in practice. I’m willing to try them in a game. You’ve just got to be willing to mess up and be OK with it.
“There’ve been a few moves where I’m just surprised. And I’m just like, ‘OK. Well, that worked! You’ve just got to be willing to try it.”
Of course, the ways in which Irving defies convention as a scoring point guard who excels outside basketball systems can backfire. There is a polarity to his genius. Some step into a gallery wanting paintings to not be so abstract. They turn on a basketball game to watch a point guard settle an offense into something recognizable.
Irving can be too loose with his dribble and free with his shot selection at times. The bright colors of his game can start to run together into a muddled brownish greenish puddle.
The Cavaliers showed amazing resolve to avoid being swept on their home court. Of course, these Finals could just as easily be tied 2-2 heading back to Oakland. They were in a position to win Game 3, up six with less than three minutes remaining, in large part because of Irving’s brilliant play, putting together 38 points on 16-for-29 shooting. But when handed the keys to the team, Irving can also dribble the life out of the offense.
Just gonna leave this right here pic.twitter.com/R1zxIOn8Ht
— BBALLBREAKDOWN (@bballbreakdown) June 9, 2017
For all his brilliance through most of Game 3, attacking quickly to find the seams and unveil his brilliant shotmaking ability, it is Irving’s last possession that leaves the lasting impression for many, however fair or unfairly.
— BBALLBREAKDOWN (@bballbreakdown) June 8, 2017
“Well, it was like a shock how that game ended. Naturally, you want to blame yourself because you feel just awful because it didn’t go in,” Irving said. “So, it wasn’t necessarily the right decision and you have so many other options and you start replaying the play over and over…
“After the game, it hurt. You feel like you let your teammates down because you didn’t necessarily make the right decision. It didn’t go in. So, yeah.”
LeBron James has played more minutes than anyone else in the series, averaging 41.4 minutes per game. Over that time, the Cavaliers have outplayed the Warriors. Whenever he’s gone to the bench, the team has collapsed. During these stretches, some of Irving’s worst tendencies are given room to breathe.
But if he is to be criticized for how his game works without LeBron at times, it’s important to understand how perfect his game complements James.
LeBron James is an offensive system unto himself. Standing idle from the top of the key, he’s been able to survey the court—watching Kyle Korver run off screens along the baseline, firing perfect precision passes to Tristan Thompson or Kevin Love at the rim if their defender takes even a step to deter Korver running free.
From any spot on the court, James can fling a skip pass where it can do the most harm in ways no other player in the NBA can.
He can also overpower defense with blunt force on his way to the rim with an unparalleled combination of power, speed, balance and explosiveness. If the Warriors’ defense is perpetually on a string, James is the force that tugs at it until the entire things collapses in his wake.
But the burdens of creating the seams against the Warriors’ defense is taxing enough to bankrupt even LeBron James. Irving’s ability to work outside of the system, break the script and create chaos offers James a nice reprieve. When that creativity is paired with James’ surgical dissections, it creates magic that skews the probabilities; even against these Warriors.
LeBron James sets the stage and carries the storyline for the Cavaliers, providing the foundations for the NBA’s greatest improv actor to flourish.
Irving is an artist, using his dribble and english off the glass to make imagination reality. Against these Warriors, he’s going to have to empty the crayon box, mixing tranquil blue size-up dribbles and red-hot shooting.
If the Cavaliers are going to do something no one has ever seen before, who better to turn to than someone whose entire career has been dedicated to making that possible?