It was just three years ago, almost to the week back in 2011, when an 18-year-old Kyrie Irving took to the basketball floor for the first time in what was a three-month span. Having sustained multiple torn ligament in his right big toe, Irving, one of the college game’s most heralded prospects, rejoined his team during the men’s Division I tournament, one of the most celebrated win-or-go-home stretches of play in all of sport. As Irving’s teammates filled in admirably in his absence, lifting the Duke Blue Devils to the top seed in the region, questions surrounded his decision to return—team chemistry notwithstanding, with an NBA paycheck in his not-so-distant future, was Irving risking too much by lacing them back up?
Sure, his opponents on this very day were the lowly Hampton Pirates—every March game for the 16th seeded school would be like playing with house money—but freakier things have happened. His team was well-prepared, long of the belief that the point guard out of New Jersey would be lost for the season. But there he would be, with just over 16 minutes left in the first half of this tournament game, checking in off of Mike Krzyzewski’s bench, greeted by a standing ovation from Duke fans.
In what would be his first live play in roughly 14 weeks, Irving corralled the ball on the way to the rim and was whistled for a charge. Just moments later, Irving would take his first shot attempt. Once again setting his sights on the rim—after all, he didn’t run all of those driveway lay-up drills with his father, Drederick, for nothing—the point guard attempted a wild up-and-under off of the glass that would miss by a basketball mile. He would score just two points in the half.
“Kyrie is working his way back into the flow,” said fellow Duke guard Seth Curry. “He needs to get his legs back a little bit. Playing a lot of minutes tonight will help that.”
On Wednesday night, Kyrie Irving rejoined his Cleveland Cavalier teammates for the first time since injuring his biceps in a mid-March game against the Los Angeles Clippers. When Irving first sustained the injury, fears were that the team would shut down the two-time All-Star, swallow their pride and gear up for another trip to Seacaucus, New Jersey where they would await their fate as determined by the most famous ping-pong balls in the world. The loss to the Clippers would mark their fifth loss in seven games, and the Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets—three of the best teams in the NBA—were licking their lips with the bruised and battered Cavs as near-term opponents. But something happened.
The Cavs, without Irving, would put up one hell of a fight against the world champion Heat. Two nights later, the game clock would prove to be biggest burden as the Cavaliers’ were about to pull of a comeback for the ages—the Cavs ripping off a 21-2 run in the fourth quarter. Cleveland was still putting up a fight. Dion Waiters and Jarrett Jack held down the backcourt; Matthew Dellavedova provided fiery energy off of the bench. The team was playing solid defense; they were hitting open shots. They would chop off the New York Knicks in what was the middle of an eight-game winning streak. Then the Raptor. Then The Pistons. After beating the struggling Indiana Pacers at home last Sunday, the Cavaliers suddenly won four of their last five games—all without Irving. The Eastern Conference playoffs were suddenly, somehow, still in sight.
Was it even conceivable that adding an All-Star point guard to a young roster could potentially hinder what progress was being made? Waiters and Jack were thriving without their ball-dominating backcourt mate; the former was in the midst of what could easily be described as the best stretch of his career, succeeding not just as a scorer, but facilitating an offense as well as clamping down on opposing guards. With just seven games remaining on the regular season schedule, should the Cavaliers simply ride their hot hands?1.
Cleveland head coach Mike Brown would quickly end all rotation-based speculation, stating that Irving, having fully recuperated from his injury, would start upon his return. More so, Irving would start alongside Waiters, a player who was previously used largely as a reserve due to having a ball-dominating skill set that mirrored that of third-year point guard. Much had been made about the two players and their chemistry to this point in the season—they were infamously named as the protagonist and antagonist (the specific roles depended upon the point of view) of a heated team meeting earlier the season; Waiters’ mid-season pouting became a local storyline. The decision to start the two players together had been made by Brown, but the outcome was going to come down to the players.
One minute into what would be his first contest in several weeks, Irving lost the ball out of bounds, committing a turnover. He would miss a 25-foot jump shot late in the second quarter, but every other minute Irving was on the floor in this return—he played 28 in all—was as if he never missed a second. That three-pointer in addition to a free throw early on would be the only shots Kyrie Irving would miss on the night; he converted on each of his seven two-point field goals, recording 17 points in the game. Perhaps the brightest spot of this evening: Irving, the team’s leading scorer on a per-night basis, finished with the fourth-highest point total as Waiters, center Spencer Hawes and power forward Tristan Thompson each topped the 20-point mark. The ball was moving. The team was running. Irving would rack up eight assists, finding Hawes, and Thompson in the paint as well as Hawes, Waiters, Jack and Dellavedova for three-pointers. The Cavs amassed 25 points in fast break opportunities alone.
“I thought Kyrie came in and he got right in step with the rest of us,” said Mike Brown of the win. “He helped us get the ball up the floor quickly and looking to attack. Just another weapon that we have that has a high skill level.”
The concerns about Irving’s play is understandable. As a ball-dominating, high-scoring point guard, there are times where the just-turned-22-year old dribbles down the shot clock and forces matters in to his own hands. A lack of ball movement often leads to mid-range jump shots by teammates or a costly turnover. But on this night, the time and energy put in during film study had finally started to bear fruit.
“My job is to make my teammates better,” Irving said. “When I was watching film before of myself, sometimes I press too much…but now coming back and the way our team is playing…it is great for me. To being able to knock down shots when I can or attack and make plays for my teammates—that is my job. I am accepting my role to be the leader of this team and make my teammates better.”
As the final buzzer echoed throuhout Charlotte, North Carolina’s Time Warner Cable Arena, Kyrie Irving’s Duke Blue Devils were granted the next round of the NCAA tournament. The headline-making point guard, the subject of columns across the country, finished with 14 points—12 of them were scored in 13 second-half minutes.
At one point in the second half, Irving stole an inbound pass and took off downcourt toward a Hampton defender who was on an island underneath the basket. Irving went in for a layup with his right hand and then, in mid-air, switched to his left. With five-and-a-half minutes left, Irving hauled a defensive rebound, turned and sprinted up the court. Darting in from the right wing, Irving split two Hampton defenders and laid the ball in off the backboard. It was one of those plays where those in attendance are left with their jaws being propped up by their cup holders.
“I was nervous when I got out there in the first half,” Irving said of his return. “I was pressing and trying too hard. You can’t play basketball that way. But then in the second half, I don’t know, I just started to feel good.”
Irving would play without fear, refusing to change his style due to a freak injury. He dazzled with an array of English off of the glass as well as a perfect 2-of-2 from three-point land and a flawless night at the charity stripe. Just before the end of the first half, just moments after he threw up an errant first shot attempt, Irving cruised down the left side of the lane, drew a slap on the arm from Hampton’s Kwame Morgan, a blow strong enough to force Irving to the court—a sequence that was gasp-inducing for anyone watching. Irving would simply pop right up, unfazed, and proceeded to knock down his two free throws.
The Cleveland Cavaliers now sit two games out of the final spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs with a crucial game against the Atlanta Hawks on the horizon. They certainly don’t control their own destiny as the Knicks, also a team ahead of them in the standings, have been no strangers to elongated winning streaks, but a victory over the Hawks would undoubtedly make for an interesting final week of regular season play. There’s no telling what the situation would be like had Iving and Waiters would have figured out how to play off of one another sooner2. What is known, is that the two guards have shown that they are more than capable of spearheading an offense that thrives on running, space and ball movement.
As the Cavaliers head into the summer, there will be no shortage of columns penned about Kyrie Irving’s future in Cleveland. The Cavaliers can offer him an extension, one that is expected to be for the maximum dollar amount allowed. Speculation surrounds this situation as Irving, a player who has had no shortage of injuries, may or may not be worth being such a large percentage of a team’s salary cap. But what cannot be speculated upon is the point guard’s willingness to play despite the potential long-term damage that can be incurred. As Irving’s first NBA contract was put at risk during the 2011 NCAA Tournament, his second one could take a serious blow in the event he does.
It was just two weeks ago when pundits and fans across the country were damning what appeared to be another injury-shortened season for Irving, a player who has been under the microscope all year long. He made a goal for himself to play all 82 games this season, grinding through stomach bugs and achy joints for many of the winter months. Not helping matters was the fact that the Cavs had not collapsed without him. If anything, they were flourishing. But just as Irving did when came back from his toe injury in 2011, many were left wondering what sort of impact he could make—or if he could make one at all. Perhaps it was his then teammate Andre Dawkins who would put it best with a quote that may fit the No. 1 pick forever.
“A guy with his talent at 70 percent is better than a lot of guys at 100 percent.”
Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images