How Kyrie Irving's season of giving reached new levels

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Kyrie Irving didn’t play Saturday because of a sore right hamstring, so he watched the Cleveland Cavaliers' 121-109 New Year’s Eve victory over the Hornets from the bench.

So he closed the books early on December and assured that he’d finish the most prolific month of passing in his career of five-plus years. Helped by five double-figure assist games over the last two weeks, Irving averaged 7.8 assists per game in December (6.0 overall this season).

The highlight of the month surely was his game winner to defeat the Warriors over the smothering defense of Klay Thompson on Christmas Day. But Irving's teammates have noticed how much more he’s taken on the role of distributor as the Cavs rack up 3-pointers after his drives collapse defenses.

“It’s the evolution and growth in my point guard,” LeBron James said. “He’s studying the game, he’s watching the game, and now he’s actually going out and playing the game. Just read and reacting, and just continues to get better every single day, every single month. And he’s showing that.”

Irving has been studying film of James’ days with the Miami Heat and his first tenure with the Cavs from 2003-10, looking for situations where teammates would set him up. The play that led to James’ massive late-game dunk against the Warriors on Christmas was the result of the same type of action James used to run with Dwyane Wade on the Heat.

“He used to do that with Mo Williams even before [Wade], they used to run that play,” Irving said. “He used to get major dunks on that. I watched them.”

Irving’s on-court chemistry with James has been expanding. Last season, Irving set James up with assists 43 times during the regular season. This season, the number is already at 42. Last season, Irving assisted one of every 17 of James’ baskets; this season that number has surged to one of every six. Those stats speak for themselves.

Irving did miss the first six weeks of last season recovering from knee surgery, but the point remains clear: Irving’s film work and attention to detail offensively is making him a more dynamic playmaker and a more efficient running mate for James. By comparison, Matthew Dellavedova led the Cavs by setting up James for 84 baskets last season (Kevin Love was second with 69). Irving is ahead of that pace so far.

“It’s paying more attention to details and understanding I have a lot of weapons to utilize,” Irving said. “So coming down and being ready to command the game in a way that is best tailor-fitted for the team.”

Counting Irving’s assists has been a bit of a touchy subject at times the last few seasons. James once confronted Irving after he went a game and a half with no assists in their first month playing together. Irving was targeted by critics during last postseason’s NBA Finals when he registered only five assists in the first two games as the Warriors won both easily.

Cavs coach Ty Lue was Irving’s biggest backer then, telling him not to change his mindset and to keep attacking during the Finals, and his advice hasn’t changed since. Lue believes Irving has to look to attack first and pass second.

“I’ve always said he can’t just come down and control the game with his passing like Jason Kidd or Magic Johnson or something like that,” Lue said. “He has to look to score, and then when he gets into the paint, that’s when his passing opens up.”

That won’t change; Irving is going to look to score first. Playing with James, he’ll have stretches where he plays more shooting guard than point guard because James has led his team in assists every year of his 14-year career. He even edged Irving out by a percentage point over the past month. So these elevated assist totals for Irving may not last.

But Irving has discovered something and will retain that knowledge.

“I’m confident enough to get my shot off anytime; now it’s more about making sure everyone feels in a good rhythm,” Irving said. “You see all those eyes turn to you and you command so much attention, you have to make the right play.”