Jarrett Jack has played all of 21 games alongside Kyrie Irving. He’s seen the highlights and multiple 41-point games complete with dazzling, dizzying drives to the rim. He’s seen the lowlights as encapsulated by a zero-point effort just this past Friday night in a loss to Atlanta and occasional run-ins with the body language police. But what he did on Tuesday night—not just in his 37 points and 11 assists with just one turnover, but his positioning, spacing, deferring and poise—was enough for Jack to pull Kyrie aside after the game and drop the M-Word on the 21-year-old; he let Irving know that the result was the most “mature” game that he had put together during what is slowly becoming a not-so-young season. Ultimately, it was Irving who led the Cavaliers from beginning to end, allowing Cleveland to finally be the team who put the rookies and end-of-bench reserves on the floor as the game clock neared zeroes. Ultimately, it would be Irving who would offer a smile and a “thank you” as he took to the Cavaliers’ locker room, his team gearing up for a two-game road trip.
Jack provided a solid game of his own, hitting six of his eight shots, providing what could best be described as clutch possessions as the bumbling New York Knicks continued to claw back into the game. But there was a moment in the contest, mid-way through the fourth quarter where Irving simply wouldn’t miss. Using high-post screens to his advantage, Kyrie sank a 20-foot jump shot from the right side, flawlessly executed a running floater off of the glass—one that took an incredibly difficult angle, and then effortlessly drained a three-pointer at the top of the key, rendering the Knicks defense as mere bystanders. Having electrified the Quicken Loans Arena crowd as his point total continued to near 40, the very next time down the floor, Irving used a screen to duck left and began driving to the hoop. As a heat check would’ve been more than acceptable, as the defense converged, collapsing around him, Irving delivered a perfect bounce pass to a slicing Anderson Varejao. The result was two points and a foul.
It was a night where the mammoth Andrew Bynum didn’t have it going offensively, converting on just one of his six shots. Dion Waiters, tallying 30 points in a loss to the Atlanta Hawks just four nights earlier, had more turnovers (four) and personal fouls (three) than he did field goals (two)1. The Cavaliers, led by head coach Mike Brown, want to become an offense that is predicated on a solid inside-outside game, starting with Bynum and finishing with either an easy two points or one of the guards converting on a jump shot or back-door cut when the center is met with a double-team. But there will be nights where this just doesn’t work, be it for a variety of reasons. It’s these instances where Irving simply has to take over right out of the gate, whether he prefers to or not.
“It feels good [to finally have shots fall],” said Irving following the game. “I have the confidence of the coaching staff and my teammates and I was making plays within our offense. I was trying to stay aggressive; that’s all I can do and just try to lead (the team).”
Even more impressive than the shots finally falling? New York’s Raymond Felton was added to the ever-growing list of opposing point guards to tally woeful scoring efforts against the Cavaliers, finishing the game with just six points on 3-of-8 shooting2. While not nearly as exciting as an offensive eruption, this is a stark contrast compared to the past two seasons with Kyrie at the helm.
Irving’s struggles this season have been well-documented. Jack has been one player who has not been afraid to criticize when needed. He’s been as frustrated as any player inside that locker room despite not having been in Cleveland for the dreadful, loss-filled seasons which preceded it. While accolades and attaboys are a hell of a lot easier to lob after a victory, that Jack—whose locker is right next to Irving’s to ensure that his leadership is never all that far away—wasted no time in letting his All-Star teammate know that what he did on this very night was what is essentially expected of him every time out from that point forward. Maturity is something that can’t be purchased with PepsiMAX proceeds, it’s not something that can simply be obtained through a phone call to his father. Maturity is something that Irving has had to not just discuss, but embrace and act upon regardless of how bright the lights, how big the opponent and how frequent his shots may or may not be falling.
The moniker of “Mr. Fourth Quarter” is fun for fans and gives Cavaliers play-by-play man Fred McLeod something to scream with each and every fourth-quarter conversion. But if this Cavaliers team is going to produce anything that looks like a playoff team, it’ll take Irving playing every quarter as if it’s the fourth. For the entire 48 minutes, he has to attack, he has to move with or without the ball, and he has to continue making his teammates better, even if it’s in the midst of an NBA Jam-like barrage. The M-word has been bantered about quite a bit this season, almost exclusively when referencing Irving. The true sign of maturity is not just recognizing the shortcomings which one has, but taking the steps needed to triumph over them. Kyrie may have very well hit rock bottom on Friday night. If Tuesday night’s contest against the Knicks was any indication, it appears that it didn’t take long for the self-proclaimed leader to bounce back in a very big way. His team has now won four of five games and—despite the struggles and blowouts and what-the-hell moment—is just just one game back of the Chicago Bulls for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. It’s there for the having. It will be up to Irving to reach out and grab it.
(Image via David Liam Kyle/NBAE Getty Images)
- Not that I’m ready to attribute any sort of correlation to this, but in the last three Cavs wins, Dion Waiters has five, three and six points, respectively. In their last three losses, Waiters has provided 24, 21 and 30 points, respectively. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention this somewhere. [↩]
- Earlier this month, Ty Lawson was 1-for-13 for four points; Chris Paul made just 4-of-16 shots, a player who typically hits close to 50 percent of his shots [↩]