Kyrie Irving emerges as playmaker down stretch for Cavaliers

TORONTO -- DeMar DeRozan sat at the postgame podium after his team was relegated to being a mere steppingstone on the Cleveland Cavaliers’ road to greater glory for the second straight year and summed up what the Toronto Raptors are missing.

"If we had LeBron on our team, too,” DeRozan rationalized, “we would've won."

Of course, any discussion of the Cavs’ 4-0 sweep of the Raptors in the Eastern Conference semifinals should begin with LeBron James. His 35 points, nine rebounds and six assists in Sunday’s 109-102 closeout win typified a series in which he averaged 36 points on 57.3 percent shooting from the field, 48.1 percent from 3-point range (13 3s overall, the most by any Cavs player and more than double the leading long-range shooter for the Raptors) and 83.3 percent from the foul line to go with 8.3 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 1.3 steals and 1 block per game.

It’s hard to argue that James isn’t playing the best basketball of his 14-year career. Cleveland is 8-0 to start the postseason and earned at least another full week off before the start of the conference finals.

DeRozan’s assessment failed to mention the Cavs’ second-best player, Kyrie Irving, however. James and Irving combined to score or assist on 92 of the Cavs’ 109 points Sunday, according to ESPN Stats & Information. And Irving’s offensive onslaught as both a scorer and playmaker was on full display in Game 4.

Through three quarters, Irving had 16 points and nine assists, showing the balance he started the series with when he had 10 assists in Game 1 -- his first ever double-digit assist game in the playoffs – and one-upped himself with 11 in Game 2.

Then, in the fourth quarter, as the Raptors stormed back from a 16-point second-half deficit to take the lead with 6:38 remaining, Irving shifted back to scoring-machine mode by dropping in the Cavs’ next 11 points in the span of two minutes and 38 seconds. First, that familiar step-back 3 from the right wing that gave him basketball immortality in Game 7 of last year’s NBA Finals, then a couple free throws, then a left-handed layup, plus two more free throws and another layup.

His run put Cleveland back up by eight, essentially ending the series.

“In that fourth quarter, I just went to iso at the elbow for Kyrie,” said Cavs coach Tyronn Lue. “Getting it to him. Clearing out. Bringing Kyle [Korver] off the double. And they’d give Kyrie a live dribble at the elbow, which he’s virtually unstoppable. We went to the iso, one-on-one game for Kyrie at the elbow, and he produced for us.”

From the very beginning of James and Irving’s time together in Cleveland, the point guard’s assist totals have been a point of contention, leading to James privately criticizing Irving for the underdeveloped part of his game.

The Irving that we saw in this second round -- averaging 22.3 points, 8.5 assists and 2 steals per game while still taking clutch shots when his team needed them -- is the Irving that James envisioned when he wrote in his coming-home article with Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins, “I can help Kyrie Irving become one of the best point guards in our league.”

After three seasons and a championship together, with perhaps another on the way, James’ goals for the former No. 1 pick have gone even higher.

“Kyrie can score on anybody he wants,” James told ESPN. “ANYBODY. On a consistent level. His next growth, which I believe is going to make him a great, an all-time great, is when he can also consistently make other guys around him better. Which he is doing now. This is great to see. It’s always great to be a part of somebody’s maturation process. You know what I’m saying? I love it.”

It’s not an easy existence for Irving, being pushed by James to expand his game while simultaneously being ridden by Lue to do what he does best out of necessity for the Cavs’ offense.

“We don’t have a lot of guys who can create off the dribble, so if he’s not doing it, then we’re screwed,” Lue told ESPN. “So we need him to be aggressive, we need him to score the basketball. But then if guys are going to be there -- two [defenders] -- we need him to make the right play. And that’s what he did in this series, with [Raptors center Jonas] Valanciunas trying to be up, and having nine assists and making the right play.

"At times, [Irving’s low assist totals] could be my fault, because we need him to be aggressive scoring the basketball because he can go get it one-on-one," Lue added. "And as far as that dynamic, sometimes if he does too much, I got to say, ‘Hey Ky, you got to [settle down],’ and he’s like, ‘Oh, OK, OK, I got you.’ But I need to him to be aggressive.”

Irving has seemingly come to terms with the dual expectations from his head coach and teammate.

“Understanding that my effect on the game doesn’t necessarily have to be just shooting the ball all the time,” he said. “Just growing with the team I’ve been part of. [My assist totals have] definitely been picked apart since I’ve come into the league, and for me personally, I’ve just always felt like taking over the game came from literally just putting the team on my back and going out there and trying to score as many baskets as possible. But there are so many more facets of the game you can be better at.”

While this might be James’ peak, at 32 years old and with close to 50,000 minutes played under his belt, he cannot keep this up forever. And while James’ commitment to the game hasn’t waned yet, the fact that he told Cleveland.com this week that he has “nothing left to prove” in his career means he's far closer to the finish line than to the start.

He is ready, maybe sooner than any of us realize, to turn the keys over to Irving and let someone else drive.

“He's 25?" James said to ESPN. "He's going to be in the position to carry the franchise on his own in his prime."