CLEVELAND -- Ever since the day they were drafted into the NBA together more than 4½ years ago, Tristan Thompson has had a front-row seat for every step of Kyrie Irving’s career with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
And so when Thompson was on the bench in the fourth quarter of the Cavs’ 122-100 win over the Toronto Raptors on Monday while Irving was putting the final touches on a masterful night in which he posted 25 points, eight assists, six rebounds and just one turnover, he came to an important conclusion.
“I said, ‘He’s back,’” Thompson shared in the locker room after the Cavs’ fourth straight victory. “That’s what I said. I’ve been seeing this for five years now. Kid is special, very special. That boy is good.”
It’s funny that Thompson chose that last noun for Irving, considering the point guard showed up with a clean-shaven look -- save for a trimmed goatee -- that made him look so young that 35-year-old veteran Richard Jefferson jokingly stroked Irving’s baby-faced cheek with the back of his hand before tipoff.
Irving’s performance gave off an even stronger vibe of a fresh start as his first dominant game in the six games he has been back since a six-month recovery following surgery on his fractured left kneecap.
There were spin moves and Eurosteps. Floating layups and pull-up 3s. No-look assists and crossover dribbles. About the only person who could keep Irving still all night was Cavs coach David Blatt when he found Irving after the final buzzer and wrapped his arms around the point guard for a lengthy embrace.
“Honestly, I just told him, ‘Man, it’s good to have you back and looking at full strength,’” Blatt said. “It felt like he was himself tonight. Expected that he would come back and take a little bit of time to catch the rhythm of the game, to get his game legs, but tonight it just looked like the old Kyrie. That’s what I shared.”
Adding to the remarkable nature of Irving's night was the fact that it came in just 29 minutes of action. (Blatt said the team is still trying to keep him under 30 minutes while he works his legs into game shape.) And it came against Kyle Lowry, perhaps his most worthy adversary at point guard in the Eastern Conference when both are fully healthy.
Coincidentally, it was Lowry who received 10,000 fewer votes than Irving in the NBA All-Star ballot first returns. That put Lowry on the outside looking in on the starting lineup, despite Irving having only played two games when the votes came in and that Toronto, Lowry’s team, is the host city for the February exhibition.
With fan voting closing in two weeks, LeBron James looked to boost Irving’s All-Star lead even more on Monday afternoon when he took to Twitter to try to sway his 26.5 million followers to vote for Irving along with Kevin Love, as well as his closest friends in the league in Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony.
“He’s special,” James said of Irving. “He’s that special, man. He’s much better than an All-Star. Much better than an All-Star. If he continues to play the way he’s been playing but also continues to progress in his game over the years, he can do something that’s very special around this league. I’m not going to put too much pressure on him, but I know in my head what he can become in this league, and tonight he showed it.”
James was then asked if it was fair to vote for Irving, considering his small body of work this season, and James might have had a Freudian slip regarding the status he thinks Irving can reach in his answer.
“I mean, there would never be a question if Kyrie Irving is the MVP as long as he’s on the floor and he’s healthy,” James said. “There’s not many guys, if any, at the point guard level that’s better than him. So I don’t think it should even be a question.”
The question that does exist with Irving heading into the Cavs’ six-game road trip beginning on Wednesday in Washington is whether the Raptors game would guarantee his steady ascension or if he’ll still have some setbacks along the way. In his fourth game back, Irving hit a crucial late 3 against Phoenix, passing the clutch test. In his fifth game back, he dove for a loose ball and banged his knee on the hardwood, passing the physical test. In his sixth game back, he broke out his entire bag of tricks, passing the confidence test. It would seem there are only more positivities in store.
“For me, it’s just about getting better every single game,” Irving said. “That’s what I’ve tried to do."
"For me, now, it’s just continuing, continuing, continuing to progress and get better for my teammates," he added. "And that’s making plays and being decisive on my decisions. When I’m able to play like that and get other guys shots and be aggressive and guys are hitting shots, gosh, the game is so fun. It was so fun to be out there. It was reminiscent of what we had last year.”
And last year, Cavs fans can tell you, was outrageous fun up until the moment when the team had to try to fight back from a 3-2 deficit in the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors without the services of Irving.
“It kind of goes without saying,” Irving said. “We all know what we’ve been through. A lot of tribulations for us, a lot of setbacks. If we can triumph over any obstacle, it’s a big thing for us. Hugging and embracing all my teammates and we’re up by 20 coming out [in the fourth quarter], we’re feeling good, we’re playing well. Those are the moments you live for.”