PHILADELPHIA – “He could score 60 -- in the 55s and 60s, all the time.”
Yet what we’ve seen through the Cavs’ 13-2 start to their title-defending season is that the full-fledged scoring version of Irving is rarely needed for Cleveland to keep winning. Which means the remarkable thing about Lue’s statement is not that the 24-year-old Irving is capable of putting up numbers like that – his 55- and 57-point performances two seasons ago showed that – but that he is capable of resisting the urge to always play that way in the name of the Cavs’ success.
“It’s just about picking and choosing,” Irving said after scoring 10 of the Cavs’ first 13 points in the fourth quarter to help them come back from an early 14-point hole against Philly. “Knowing where your spots are. When you have great players like this on our team, it can come from any of us [at] any given moment. So, when any of us gets it going, we always continue to go to that person. But I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Whether it’s needed for me to go get however many in the fourth quarter -- or Kevin [Love] or Bron [James] or Channing [Frye]. It can be anybody’s night. It’s just that we’re always trusting the pass, and we’re always trusting each other and making each other better. So that fourth quarter was just the night for me to be aggressive.”
Irving’s answer was telling, not only because he put himself in the same breath as Love and James – suggesting that Cleveland’s sometimes fragile “Big Three” is truly clicking as a triumvirate once and for all – but that he put himself on the same level as Frye, the Cavs’ seventh man in the rotation.
The Cavs are stacked, and they should be, considering their payroll is the largest in NBA history. James had his third triple-double of the season Sunday with 26 points, 13 assists and 10 rebounds. Love had 25 points and 11 boards, marking the fourth time in his past five games he scored 25 or more. Frye was not with the team, as he mourns the death of his father, but he’s had his moments too – scoring in double-digits in seven of the 11 games he’s played off the bench, including hitting the go-ahead shot late against Toronto.
Meanwhile, Irving has worked his skills into the team scheme and started to carve out a niche on the Cavs as their closer. We know Love is the opener – as that record-setting 34-point first quarter showed last week. And we know James does everything and then some. Irving's starring role could probably be sustained even longer throughout the game, but that's not what the Cavs call for right now.
Irving ended up with 19 in the fourth quarter on Sunday. It was the fourth time this season he’s hit for 10-plus points in the final quarter of a game, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He is averaging 7.3 points in the fourth this season, which is tied for fifth in the NBA and ranks first for the Cavs (James is second at 6.3 points).
The Cavs like to say that Irving has no weaknesses on offense. His roots in the game, as he mentioned Sunday, do not come from a balanced, calculated approach. “Where I’m from in Jersey and New York, it’s about the one-on-one competition and the crowd getting into it, and they want to see one-on-one play,” he said. “So I grew up around that culture, and now I get to utilize it in the NBA.”
Yet balance and calculation is precisely what has allowed Irving to bang out his solo guitar riffs with such aplomb.
The thing is that if any game was going to be the game that Irving chose to go back to that full-tilt style -- all electric guitar, all the time -- and abandon the balance the roster has struck through its hot start, it would have been Sunday's. The last time the Cavs played in Philadelphia, with Irving's dad and daughter and other loved ones in attendance, he shot just 3-for-17 for 8 points. It was his worst game of the season by far, the only time he scored fewer than 19 points in a game, as his pregame shooting routine was thrown out of whack by a Joe Biden motorcade.
“I would be lying if I didn’t tell you that,” Irving said when asked if the last performance, some three weeks ago, was on his mind. “I definitely felt like I owed them one. It was nothing personal. It was just coming here and not being able to warm up and do everything possible. I wanted to come out here and play well.”
But his definition of “well” wasn’t like it might have been in the past. While he admitted he “steamrolled” the Sixers in the fourth, before that he played his normal game – pushing the pace, probing the defense, figuring out the soft spots he could attack as the game wore on, like he was the host Maeve in the HBO hit “Westworld,” trying to figure out the vulnerabilities of the park.
“Taking plays in mentally, picturing it,” Irving described. “Plays that we would have in the first half where I’d come off pick-and-rolls, and I saw how Joel Embiid was playing the pick-and-rolls as well as Jahlil [Okafor]. So, just taking mental screenshots and then using that for the fourth quarter to execute down the stretch.”
When James was asked what he liked about Irving’s fourth-quarter performance, he responded with a question of his own: “How could you not like everything he did in the fourth?”
Irving, the guy who hit "The Shot" over Stephen Curry in Game 7 last June, has emerged as Cleveland’s closer. How can you not like everything about that?