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Irving poised for his next step -- a title run

WASHINGTON -- Before the Cleveland Cavaliers could completely turn the page on the All-Star break and put their remarkable, if not turbulent, first half of the season behind them, Kyrie Irving offered up a pretty jarring reminder of just how far his team has come in a short amount of time.

"We have the same amount of wins at the break that we did all last season, so that was an accomplishment just for me and our team," Irving told reporters after Cleveland's first post-break practice Wednesday.

That's right. The Cavs went 33 up and 49 down a season ago in a campaign that resulted in both the coach (Mike Brown) and general manager (Chris Grant) being let go and a slew of other roster moves not panning out (Andrew Bynum, Luol Deng, Spencer Hawes, etc.).

For Irving -- one of only four holdovers from last year's team along with Tristan Thompson, Matthew Dellavedova and the injured Anderson Varejao -- this season can only be seen as a gift after his first three seasons in the league all ended with him on the outside looking in when it came to the playoff picture.

For Irving, nothing about going 33-22 to start the season -- despite that six-game losing streak, despite the speculation about coach David Blatt's job (a coach, mind you, whom Irving always has fervently supported with his public comments), despite Cleveland sitting No. 5 in the weakened Eastern Conference after coming into the season as Las Vegas' odds-on favorites to win it all -- can be seen as a disappointment.

He's in the position to cap off his personal 12-month hot streak that started with being named All-Star MVP in February 2014, followed by a max extension in July, a gold medal and MVP honors at the FIBA World Cup in September, the launch of his own personal Nike signature shoe in December and another All-Star selection last weekend in New York, with an additional four-month flurry -- the final two months of the regular season plus a two-month-long playoff conquest -- to really take his career to the next level.

"I'm excited," Irving said. "Now we're gearing up for something far bigger than ourselves and that's a championship run, playoff run."

Cleveland will go into the stretch run in the point-guard-dominated league with its ace in Irving.

All four of the teams ahead of the Cavs in the East, starting with John Wall and the Washington Wizards whom they play Friday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN), have a stellar point guard in their own right: Toronto's Kyle Lowry and Atlanta's Jeff Teague were All-Stars along with Irving and Wall this season. Chicago's Derrick Rose, meanwhile, is a former league MVP.

So, what makes Irving stand out even among the elite?

"The way he finishes," said J.R. Smith, a fellow former New Jersey high school player who went from being highly touted to handsomely compensated in the league. "He's by far the best finisher and ball handler that I've ever seen. For somebody to do what he does and get all the way to the basket and spin the ball off the left side of the rim with your right hand, it's crazy. I don't know how he learned it, but I'm going to start taking some lessons or something. I got to get to the basket."

Irving's offensive exploits have been well documented -- he's never averaged fewer than 18.5 points in his four seasons in the NBA. This season he expanded his game to include a 41.4 percent mark on 3-pointers which ranks third in the NBA among all qualified point guards. But it's his defense that is really vaulting him up the list.

"I think Kyrie's big step this year has been the fact he's become such a good two-way player," Blatt said Thursday. "That's critical."

So critical that during the Cavs' recent 12-game win streak, opposing starting point guards shot a combined 43-for-158 (27.2 percent), with big names such as Rose, Chris Paul, Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook among the deterred.

"I think teams play defense, but individuals do have to take the challenge," Blatt said. "I really feel Kyrie took the challenge, but he's far from done. He's going to be looking at that every night."

There's still more work to do, of course, as Irving's real plus-minus (RPM) according to ESPN.com is seventh among point guards at 4.7, but that is taking into account that his defensive real plus minus (DRPM) is actually -.40. Meaning, in essence, his offense still way outshines his defense, despite the improvements he's made on that end.

No matter what the metrics bear out, LeBron James knows that in Irving, his team will have a worthy counterpart when it goes up against Wall to start the second half of the season Friday.

"Two of the best point guards that we have in our league," James said. "It's a point guard league right now and those guys are dominating the game as far as point guards … [It] is going to be one of those marquee matchups that both will downplay, but they know they're special. That's part of the reason why their teams are successful."

It's a team success that Irving is enjoying for the first time as a pro. A team success that Irving says he is relying on his more experienced teammates, like James, to guide him through as it leads to the first playoff berth of his career.

"It's a learning process," Irving said. "Obviously I've never been in a playoff push before, but I just got to learn from the guys that are ahead of me and guys that have experience and just take it from there. That's what I do, if I haven't experienced it yet, take it for what it is. This is my first time so I just got to do whatever they say, basically, and make it happen and continue to have the same attitude of whatever it takes to win for my teammates.

"They know what's coming up. They know what it's going to be like, the games coming up, and how the intensity is going to rise. I just have to experience it and go from there."

If where Irving goes in the next four months is anywhere near the same success level of where he's been the past 12, the Cavs will certainly be pointed in the right direction.