SALT LAKE CITY -- We're learning pretty early in the process of the Cleveland Cavaliers becoming the latest team to try to Frankenstein their way to a championship -- draft a franchise point guard here, trade for a franchise big man there, connect the two with the free-agent signing of the summer -- that it's the psychology of their newly created monster that will determine its functionality as much as anything.
The anticipation coming into Wednesday's 102-100 loss to the Utah Jazz was as much about the fascination of how Kyrie Irving would respond to being not-so-subtly put on blast by LeBron James less than 24 hours earlier as it was about how the Cavs would try to crawl their way out of the 1-2 hole they dug for themselves to start the season.
"There's a lot of bad habits; a lot of bad habits have been built up over the last couple of years, and when you play that style of basketball it takes a lot to get it up out of you," James said in Portland, Oregon, after Irving went 3-for-17 in the Cavs' 101-82 loss to the Trail Blazers. "But I'm here to help, and that's what it's about."
Irving, displaying the confidence of a guy who was just named the MVP of the FIBA Basketball World Cup this past summer (think about that for a moment: He was literally dubbed the most valuable basketball player on the planet) and the defiance of a 22-year-old kid who doesn't know any better, kept his foot on the throttle in Utah.
Those 17 shot attempts increased to 23 (albeit he made 12 of them this time), and those saving-grace five assists he had in Portland disappeared, as he, the team's starting point guard, had zero of them against the Jazz.
Irving's statement through his play was clear: He isn't about to automatically back down his aggressive approach just because James speaks out against it. His play harkened back to the story he told during media day in late September, sharing how his college coach, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, would implore his players to not check their egos, but rather bring those egos and fold them into the team.
It takes self-assurance to be able to succeed in this sport, and Irving has that in spades. He scored 19 of his game-high 34 points in the second half against Utah. He helped erase what was once a 16-point Cavs deficit by making several big plays down the stretch, none bigger than a steal with one minute left that he converted into a reverse layup on the other end to draw the Cavs within two with 56.3 seconds remaining.
"I thought he was a lot more aggressive on offense tonight," coach David Blatt said when asked about Irving. "I thought that he made it a point to come out tonight with a kind of a fire and a sense of urgency that perhaps we didn't see last night, and I thought he did a great job. I thought he played defense for good parts of the game very well, and he played a lot of minutes. He laid it out there tonight, so I'm pretty happy with him."
Even though Cleveland, now 1-3, came up short thanks to Gordon Hayward hitting a jumper at the buzzer after James had tied it up with three free throws with 3.4 seconds left, Irving showed no remorse about his approach afterward.
"Just taking what the defense gave me, not necessarily any calls," Irving said of what he was running on offense. "Whatever the defense was giving me, I was willing to take. I was just trying to collapse the defense."
He also collapsed James' desire to publicly critique him, at least for the time being.
"Well, I mean, as far as his scoring, it was big time," James said of Irving's night. "He made all the shots we needed to keep us in the game. He made some great plays down the stretch, finished above the rim. It was great."
Of course, it wasn't perfect. Irving getting zero assists underscored the fact that the Cavs had only six assists on 30 made buckets as a team, tying the franchise low they set twice before: once in 1970 (in the team's first season of existence) and again in 2011 (during a season in which they had a 26-game losing streak).
"There's no way you're going to win a basketball game like that, just having six assists," James said. "We had two in the first half, we had four in the second half and we had actually four [total] until the last minute and a half of the game. We just can't win like that, and we got to figure out a way to help each other and not make it so tough."
As far as statistical trends go, James was right to point out the Cavs will be hard-pressed to win any game this season when they have that kind of assist-to-made-basket ratio again, but Irving was also justified in not sweating it too much, either.
"No, no, no," Irving said when asked if he is concerned about the lack of assists. "We have great players on this team. Sometimes, things happen in the game, and you have to take it. Me and 'Bron saw that at the end of the game. We gave guys ample opportunities; guys just weren't hitting."
While Kevin Love, four years Irving's elder at 26, has already fully embraced James ("He's trying to help us grow up, and I think he's done a good job of that so far," Love said postgame), Irving has been more hardheaded.
That stubbornness could be construed as insubordination under James' watch, or it could very well end up with James ceding respect to him after seeing Irving's determination never waning.
"I knew they were trusting me with the ball," Irving said of his decision-making on offense. "I know 'Bron was trusting me with the ball, as well as the rest of the team."
The disparate pieces are trying to fit within this Cleveland creation, but until they lock into place, there will certainly be times when it looks like it could all fall apart.