<
>

Kyrie Irving living up to LeBron James' MVP premonition as Cavs keep rolling

CLEVELAND -- The reality TV show "Last Point Guard Standing," otherwise known as the NBA playoffs, continued Tuesday with the Cleveland Cavaliers' Kyrie Irving taking on the next contestant he'll try to eliminate on his way to a championship: Kyle Lowry of the Toronto Raptors.

Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, much like this individual matchup, went Irving's way by a landslide, as the Cavs trounced the Raptors 115-84, with Irving putting up 27 points on 11-for-17 shooting, five assists, two steals and two turnovers to Lowry's eight points on 4-for-14 shooting, five assists, zero steals and four turnovers.

It was significant not only because Lowry comes at a point in the journey that Irving is charged with navigating after Reggie Jackson, Dennis Schroder and Jeff Teague and before either Russell Westbrook or Stephen Curry, but also due to the connection that Lowry sparked between Irving and LeBron James earlier in the season.

In January, when Irving had barely reached three weeks into his return from a devastating knee injury that sidelined him for more than six months, he found himself in a neck-and-neck race in the voting to be named a starting guard for the East in the All-Star Game. James, perhaps sensing that Lowry would ultimately overtake Irving in the popularity contest -- considering Toronto would host the February festivities -- gave his teammate perhaps the greatest endorsement he could give.

"He's special. He's that special, man. Hes much better than an All-Star. Much better than an All-Star," James said at the time.

"I mean, there would never be a question if Kyrie Irving is the MVP, as long as he's on the floor and he's healthy."

Coming from a four-time MVP in James, the significance of the statement was not lost on Irving.

"When you have a great player like that on your team, you just have to learn from him and take what you can from him," Irving told ESPN.com on his way out of Quicken Loans Arena on Tuesday, after sharing the postgame podium with James, a pairing that has happened regularly during the Cavs' 9-0 start to the playoffs. "I've had a tremendous opportunity. I'm fortunate enough to have a mentor in Kobe [Bryant] and having a teammate, a brother like Bron. Those are guys that I can kind of bounce ideas off of. And every single day Bron's been demanding excellence out of me. I think that's been the maturity and the growth of this year."

Irving, 24, and James, 31, have their differences. You need look no further than their postgame attire after Game 1 -- James was resplendent in a suit, with Irving more casual in ripped jeans and an oversized camouflage jacket -- to have those differences illustrated for you.

They're in different life stages, with James already having established a family with a wife and three children, not to mention the MVPs and the two rings and the lifetime contract from Nike, while Irving is a first-time father as of the fall, still writing his basketball legacy and only on his second signature sneaker in his Nike line.

James has come off as overbearing at times, with Irving being framed as brash. Then again, Irving has been brilliant at times when James' ever-so-sharp skills have shown just the slightest hint of blunting.

What was abundantly clear against the Raptors, with James enjoying a 24-point night on 11-for-13 shooting, is that the way they're playing right now is bringing out the best in each another.

"They feed off each other," Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said. "One guy gets tired, the other guy steps up, and it's great to have on your team where you can look to the other guy or look to Kevin [Love] and just kind of get your breath, catch your wind and slow the game down.

"It was perfect for us tonight."

If Love had any problem taking the backseat from any Big Three talk on Tuesday to celebrate the dynamic duo, he certainly didn't show it.

"It kind of reminds me of 'Thunder and Lightning' back at SC [the University of Southern California] back in the day, where you have one guy that's so powerful, like LenDale White was, just running it up the middle and nothing you [do] can really stop him, but then you have a guy, Reggie Bush, who would kind of cut the seams and was also flashy -- I think even the flashier of the two -- and was able to really take that up the field so much," Love said. "So between those two, it's almost -- I think it's similarly different styles, but they really complement each other and work well together."

When asked about Love's comparison as they shared the podium, the pair could only laugh before Irving broke up his giggles with, "Thanks, Kevin. That's all I've got to say about it."

James and Irving have both said so much more about each another -- meaningful things -- as they've emerged as the Cavs' 1-2 punch.

"He's grown every single day, every single week, month and over the course of these last two years or year-plus, becoming a leader and becoming a staple of our team," James said of Irving. "We all knew how talented the kid was and how talented he is still today, but his growth and what he demands out of all of us, as the point guard, as one of the leaders of the team, that's what's the best part about it."

Hearing James heap praise on him like that makes Irving flash back to the summer of 2014, when all he could do was wonder about how the experiment would work, with The King returning to his abandoned kingdom that Irving had ruled.

"I didn't necessarily know how I fit in with a great player like that, and all I wanted to do is just earn his respect as well as my teammates," Irving told ESPN.com. "So it's just the fine nuances that make a good player great that I'm just figuring out by being around him every day."

The challenge of molding his game to James' and then having to do it all over again with a rehab thrown in showed a patience in Irving that he didn't even know he had.

"It was tested a lot," Irving said. "Just a lot of sleepless nights. You figure out a lot about yourself and a lot about who you are as a person and who you want to be."

On occasion, those sleepless nights would lead him to a mural he constantly updates in his house, full of inspirational quotes, lyrics and original thoughts he collects to motivate himself.

One quote, in particular, stood out so much that when an artist friend of Irving's fashioned a jacket for the point guard with many of the phrases from the mural emblazoned on it, it got prime placement across the shoulders: The journey is the reward.

He has come a long way, and there could be an added tangible award in the form of the Larry O'Brien NBA Championship Trophy waiting for him come the reality TV show's series finale in June.

"I never wanted to change who I was or change my attitude, but I knew I had to grow in certain areas in order to be a better player," Irving said. "And so, it was great. Looking back on it, I still haven't forgotten anything I went through in terms of June 6 [in Game 1 of the 2015 Finals], walking out of there, taking my jersey off and going through what I went through.

"So it's great to see it and ... the job's not over."