From sidekick to savior: The transformation of Kyrie Irving continues

Shams Charania
The Vertical

CLEVELAND – Sometimes, the aspiration of being the sole leader of a franchise creeps into Kyrie Irving’s mind. He needed the veteran voices of LeBron James and Kevin Love, Mike Miller and James Jones upon their arrivals in 2014. Now Irving has his own level of confidence toward the game.

Walking into a practice, shootaround or game, however, helps crystalize Irving’s purpose. He plays the role of maestro and sidekick for the Cavaliers, and serves as a savior in the most precious playoff moments. Irving delivered the game’s best performance on Tuesday night: a postseason career-high 42 points in leading Cleveland to a 112-99 win over the Boston Celtics and a 3-1 series lead in the Eastern Conference finals.

Irving has acknowledged the perception about his eventual leadership of a team. It’s created in moments like when he minimized the fact that James picked up his fourth personal foul midway through the second quarter, or when he scored 14 consecutive points to finish the third quarter with the game hanging in the balance.

“It hasn’t been anything short of difficult trying to figure out when will it be my time,” Irving said Tuesday night. “It’s hard not to think about because as I continue to get older and I’m playing with an unbelievable player like ‘Bron … but I just have to enjoy the ride. Individual goals, you just push to the side because with this team, nothing is promised.

” ‘Bron being so special, I’m trying to give him rest here and there and figure out where my spots are.”

Kyrie Irving scored a playoff career-high 42 points in Game 4 of the East finals. (USA Today)

Irving’s time is coming, and everyone knows it. For the Cavaliers’ Big Three of Irving, James and Love, sacrifices come internally and externally. Irving has accepted glossing over the list of individual acclaims in a certain year, and not seeing his name.

He’s transformed from a 19-year-old rookie who endured losing seasons and uneven habits on a young roster to this six-year pro distinguishing his talent and skill with observation and mentality. “Just being prepared mentally first, and then letting the physical tools that God has blessed me with take over,” Irving said.

He cherishes the responsibility alongside James and Love and the burden of elevating his basketball intelligence. Irving treasures his teammates, from working out with Iman Shumpert in Florida for part of last offseason to spending huddles discussing the game with Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith, Dahntay Jones and Kay Felder. Most of all, Irving has embraced the most critical times of the playoffs, from the game-winner over Stephen Curry in Game 7 of last year’s NBA Finals to the same dagger shots now.

“He was built for this,” James said of Irving. “He was born for these moments.”

So when Irving walked out of the locker room late Tuesday, he stopped to dissect the game and provide the intricacies of his 3-pointer late in the third quarter over guard Terry Rozier. It was the game’s most impactful shot – a step-back jumper closer to halfcourt than the rim, ending the period with Irving pouring his emotion in front of the fans.

“I had to see the play develop and set my feet first,” Irving said in a quiet hallway inside Quicken Loans Arena. “I knew that step-back was there, I just had to get my balance right.”

These Celtics have remained sturdy, far stronger than people gave them credit for when Isaiah Thomas was declared out for the season before Game 3. They took advantage of James’ off night Sunday, and appeared on the same course when they led 43-33 and James went to the bench in the second quarter with foul trouble.

Still, James had an aggressive second half, finishing with 34 points, six assists and five rebounds, and Love added 17 points, 17 rebounds and five assists. When Irving tumbled to the baseline in the third quarter, clutching his left foot, the make-or-break of the season flashed before him, and he said he hollered to the bench, “I won’t come out.”

“I knew how much my team needed me, and I just needed to will it at that point,” Irving said. “I’m sure when I get home, my body will probably hate me. It’s about the magnitude of the game and what’s at stake.”

Kyrie Irving and the Cavaliers are coming to close out the Celtics on Thursday night, and, soon, to prepare for Curry and those Golden State Warriors. James and Irving witnessed Curry and Kevin Durant work in tandem offensively in the Western Conference finals, and have raised their effort as the Finals near. Irving is not calling the Cavaliers his own, but is passing the credit. He’s building his legacy and lasting memories at 25.

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