It was perhaps the most significant moment of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ playoff run thus far.
The second half of Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals was about to get underway in Chicago. Kyrie Irving, literally carried to the locker room in the second quarter after aggravating tendinitis in his left knee, was out on the court but still wearing his warm-up shirt, too banged up to join the rest of the Cavs’ starters to begin the third quarter.
Matthew Dellavedova, Cleveland’s much-maligned backup point guard whom Cavs general manager David Griffin openly spoke about hoping to find a replacement for in January, was about to take the floor in Irving’s place.
Sure, the Cavs held a 14-point lead, but they were playing on the road, there was still 24 minutes of game time remaining and Dellavedova would be matched up with former league MVP Derrick Rose, who had been playing his best ball in years in the series up to that point.
Win the game and Cleveland is in the Eastern Conference finals. Lose it and the Cavs host a winner-take-all Game 7 just two days later with Irving’s health as a major question mark.
Right before Dellavedova trotted out towards the center circle, Irving grabbed his understudy and pulled him in to give a hug and impart a message.
“I just said, ‘Do what you do,’” Irving said, recalling the moment. What Dellavedova went on to do was score 11 of his team-high 19 points in the fourth quarter -- finishing 7-for-11 from the field and outshining Rose’s 14 points on 7-for-16 shooting -- and help propel the Cavs to a runaway victory.
As surprising a performance it was out of Dellavedova -- he had more games in the regular season when he scored zero points (11) than he did double digits (nine) -- the embrace with Irving that preceded it might have been even more unlikely when you consider how the pair’s relationship started off.
“Yeah, they used to f--- each other up,” said Tristan Thompson, recalling the times he’d have to play peacemaker in Cavs training camp in the fall of 2013 when Irving, the franchise player and former No. 1 pick, was matched up with Dellavedova, the undrafted rookie free agent just trying to make the team. “They used to go after it every day. There would be times when they’d be ready to fight each other.”
The distaste between them started a few months before that, in the summer, when Irving sized up Dellavedova for the first time during a pick-up game.
“I played him in the summer time and he was going into summer league, I was going into my third year and I was like, ‘Who the hell is this kid?’ I was like, I’ve never heard of him,” Irving said. “I had heard of him, because of St. Mary’s, but I had never played against him. So, I’m coming in and he just basically, every fast break, he was just fouling the s--- out of me. I was like, ‘OK, well, maybe I’ll see him in training camp.’ So, we went through training camp, every single day we went against each other and damn near almost fought every single day.”
Mike Brown, known for his lengthy practices, was coaching the Cavs at the time. More practice time meant more 1-on-1 battles between the point guards.
“Early in the season when you scrimmage more at practice, it definitely almost came to that -- having to be separated,” said Dellavedova. “But it was never [personal]. We were both just playing hard and wanting to win in practice. It’s been great for my development, having to try to guard Kyrie every day in practice.”
It wasn’t always great for Irving, at least he didn’t think so initially.
“Probably the first three months of the season he was irritated by Delly,” Thompson said, “but he realized Delly is not going to stop and it was going to make him a better player.”
Slowly, the rancor turned to respect.
“It was just the pride that he had and the pride that I had,” Irving said. “You know, I love a guy when he challenges me and I’m not going to back down and he’s not going to back down from me -- which I didn’t expect. So, that’s what really drew us a lot closer.”
Now, there are a lot of players in the Cavs’ locker room who express how close they feel to the team’s second-year guard from Australia.
“I’ve been telling people, Delly is the man,” said Iman Shumpert. “He’s one of those guys who comes to the gym early and leaves the gym late.”
Oftentimes when Dellavedova does lag after practice, he’ll be at a hoop with James Jones working on speeding up the release on his catch-and-shoot jumper with Jones closing out with his 6-foot-8 frame to contest the shots put up by Dellavedova, generously listed at 6-foot-4. What led to Jones, born in 1980, finding a connection with Dellavedova, born in 1990?
“Listen, man, he’s a tireless worker,” said Jones. “He’s focused on this craft. Every day he comes in the gym to get better and he won’t leave until he feels like he had a day where he got better. And I’m drawn to him because he’s a young guy who has come up the hard way in this league but he’s proven to everyone that he’s a very good NBA player.”
And then Jones offered up the label that does the most to explain Dellavedova’s success story.
“Heart, man,” Jones said. “On this team, Delly embodies all heart, all hustle and all the work.”
Dellavedova doesn’t know what all the fuss is about when it comes to his Game 6 clincher against Chicago.
When he was asked during the postgame press conference he if ever envisioned being selected by the Cavs’ public relations staff to get the star treatment at the podium for the televised event, Dellavedova shrugged it off: “This is all the extra fluff stuff. What matters is what happens in the game.”
Similarly, he was uninterested in the fashion show aspect to it. His black jeans and dark green jacket were fine by him. He wants to run an offense not walk the runway.
“Somebody sent me a text message about that, but I mean, to be honest, that’s like an American thing,” Dellavedova said. “I couldn’t care less about my outfit -- which was, actually, it’s a nice jacket. It wasn’t just a hoodie. But I really couldn’t care less about all that other stuff. All I care about is just trying to help the team win basketball games.”
That’s what he’s done this postseason. It wasn’t just Game 6, either. In Game 2 against the Bulls he set a Cavs franchise playoff record for assists by a bench player with nine. He added nine points. Cleveland came away with the victory.
It shouldn’t be surprising to hear that Dellavedova has not only endeared himself to his fellow role players, but to the Cavs’ principle decision-makers in David Blatt and LeBron James as well.
Blatt said Dellavedova made an impression on him the first time they met in Las Vegas prior to summer league.
“Some guys are easy reads,” Blatt said. “He’s an easy read. I’ve coached enough guys to know.”
What stood out?
“Purposeful, attentive, motivated and very, very focused.”
Dellavedova might not have earned James’ trust quite as quickly, but it’s definitely there now.
“You don't mind a guy the way he plays, his attention to detail,” James said. “If he happens to make a mistake, you're able just to say, 'OK, he made a mistake because he's playing hard.' You can't fault that; you can't fault what he brings to the table. It's been key to our team.
“I know Kyrie is extremely happy to have a backup like that. For us as a team, we're happy to have him.”
Irving and Dellavedova were once at each others’ throats, now they have each others’ backs as they prepare to face Atlanta’s point guard tandem of Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroder in the conference finals.
“Even though [he is only in his second year], he’s older than me and he has a mature sense about him that allows him to play with a team like this,” Irving said. “It’s just, he’s going to go out and play hard, it doesn’t matter who he is playing against. He’s going to go out and give 110 percent and that’s what you want.
“I wouldn’t want a different teammate.”