ATLANTA -- If you were going by a small sample size, the numbers didn’t look too good for Kyrie Irving.
In his past four games, played over the past nine days, the Cleveland Cavaliers guard had missed 58 of the 82 shots he attempted. Which of course included Friday’s game against the Atlanta Hawks when he’d missed 18 of the 23 shots he put up, including four of the five that left his hands in overtime, which contributed to the Cavs blowing a 21-point lead and letting Atlanta back into it.
Yet, if you were going by a much larger statistical pool -- the entirety of his five-year career in overtime games -- there was no better person to have the ball for the Cavs than Irving. Up to that point, he had gone a perfect 32-for-32 from the free throw line in pressure-packed, overtime situations.
And so, with 18.8 seconds left in OT and clinging to a one-point lead, Cleveland went to the guy who seemingly couldn’t make a shot to save his life to make two shots to give the Cavaliers new life.
He made them both.
“Just wanted to take it into my own hands,” Irving said afterward, limping to his locker with a wrap on his right ankle after twisting it in the first half. “I know my teammates wanted me to keep the ball and they have the utmost confidence in me. When we get into that situation, just want the ball in my hands."
He made two more with 12.2 seconds left, again padding the Cavs’ precarious lead from one to three and extending his streak to 36 in a row. He went 1-of-2 on his next trip, with 6.9 seconds left, putting Cleveland up two. It proved to be just enough, as Al Horford's 3-pointer missed on the Hawks’ final possession and the Cavs held on to win 110-108.
The symbolism of Irving’s performance in overtime was obvious. The Cavs are going to stick by their point guard the rest of the way this season no matter what. And while there are sure to be more nights when he struggles, there will also be those times when he rewards that faith with little glimpses of perfection (or at least close to it, as he’s now 37-for-38 on overtime free throws in his career).
“I told him it doesn’t matter what happened in the last 52½ minutes, just go up there and knock them down because I believe you can do that,” LeBron James said. “I know what’s going on in your mind. You’re able to calm yourself and he was able to do that. I hate the fact that he broke his streak, but he went up there and knocked the free throws down and we needed every last one of them.”
These have been trying times for Irving. It’s hard to fully grasp everything he has been through in the past year of his life, from learning to coexist on and off the court with James; suffering a career-altering injury in Game 1 of the NBA Finals and having to watch the rest of the series from the sidelines; becoming a father for the first time; adjusting to a fourth coach in five years; and most recently, becoming tabloid fodder after a public breakup with his ex-girlfriend.
In the midst of it all, with his game seemingly out of whack, he faced the future with defiance, proclaiming that the Cavs were “still the team to beat” in his eyes, despite ample evidence that would suggest there’s sturdy competition out in the Western Conference with a more realistic right to that claim.
Did he say it just to challenge himself?
“No,” Irving explained. “I feel that way and I was just being honest about it. We all should feel that way as well, no matter if we’re going up and down. We still have the talent and we still have the belief. Whether we show it on a consistent basis, we know internally what we have and what we’re capable of when clicking on all cylinders. May not be perfect, may not be the prototypical team that everyone else sees, but I believe in these guys. I will go to war with these guys any day.”
Maybe it’s just bluster. Maybe it’s denial of how far off the rails this season has gone for a team built to dominate the league on a revenge tour this season. Maybe, like how Irving opened up the season promising to play with “rage” in order to get back to the mountaintop, it was just a quote that sounds good but doesn’t have much truth behind it.
We’ll find out soon enough. The playoffs start in a couple weeks. One thing is for sure, though: It makes no sense for the Cavs not to back Irving now. The only way they’ll be able to achieve the greatness that they’re after is if Irving is a key component.
That’s why they put the ball in Irving’s hands late when they knew Atlanta was going to foul and put somebody at the line. And that’s why earlier in overtime, despite all of his previous misses, James passed it to Irving in the corner for a 3 that he canned.
“As great as Kyrie is, he struggles,” James said. “We all struggle. Sometimes you need someone to pick you up.”