On 'his night,' Irving revels in Cavs' glory

CLEVELAND -- Whether you like him or not, there's no doubt that LeBron James has the whole superstar thing down.

From the self-appointed "King" nickname that became universally adopted, to the "Chosen 1" tattoo he ripped from the cover of Sports Illustrated and had branded in block letters across his upper back from shoulder blade to shoulder blade, to the countless commercials he stars in, James has embraced the spotlight and welcomed it to follow him off the court.

It was with that same sense of gravitas, that same understanding of the moment that James did his best to be invisible in the Cleveland Cavaliers' postgame locker room following teammate Kyrie Irving's 55-point masterpiece in a win over the Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday.

Reporters understandably hoped to get a quote or two from James after he was a late scratch because of a sprained right wrist, but he wanted to shift the focus elsewhere.

"I'm going to kindly decline to talk to you guys," James said shortly before slipping out of the locker room and into the cold Cleveland evening. "This is his night."

It was a subtle nudge by one established star toward the budding one. Not long before, while the locker room was still closed to the media, James literally showered Irving with praise, organizing his teammates to douse Irving with water bottles in celebration, as captured on Tristan Thompson's Instagram account.

When it was Irving's turn to step into the spotlight, he was more "aw shucks" than "I'm awesome," and reluctantly accepted the extra attention coming his way.

"It means a lot," Irving said. "For me, it's just about the intensity of the game and being out there with my gracious teammates and them doing a great job of getting me open and setting great screens. I'm just happy to get the win. That's the only thing that really matters. We continue our streak."

Just like James shifted the focus from him to Irving, Irving took that attention and directed it toward the Cavs' eight-game winning streak.

He set franchise records for 3-pointers made (11) and attempted (19), set a Quicken Loans Arena record for points scored (besting Allen Iverson's 54 in 2001) and set an NBA season high for points in a game (edging Mo Williams' and Klay Thompson's 52), but it was like trying to squeeze blood from a stone to get him to revel in what he accomplished.

"I mean, you guys are going to continue to ask me what it feels like, but the only thing that matters to me is we got the win and everybody competed," Irving said.

Maybe it makes sense considering it was his idea to be the anonymous "Uncle Drew" and be disguised for his first national ad campaign. Maybe it's just the humble side of a guy, who despite being the No. 1 pick, told me earlier this season he didn't look at himself as a one-and-done player when he went to Duke and thought Kentucky's Brandon Knight and Baylor's Perry Jones III to be better players than him that year. Maybe, as he admitted back in November with a smile on his face, he really is just a "weird guy" and all the adulation doesn't do much for him.

The thing is, his game elicits an incredible response from others.

"Exceptional is a bit of an understatement," said Cavs coach David Blatt.

"Wow. What's not to like? He put the team on his back, put a great performance on and definitely made a statement tonight," Thompson said.

There was this tweet by James:

And so swept up in Irving's night, James also posted a video from his ride home expounding on what he witnessed.

It'd be nice to say that Irving's performance will stamp his ticket to New York for the All-Star Game next month, but actually the coaches' vote for reserves were due in Tuesday afternoon -- just before he exploded for 93 points in a road-home back-to-back starting with 38 in Detroit.

Even before the outburst, he had the credentials to make it. He's averaging 22.1 points, 5.2 assists, 3.1 rebounds and 1.6 steals while shooting a career best 41.3 percent from 3-point territory.

All-Star is already a bit of a sore subject for Irving anyway as he missed out on anywhere between $7 million-$10 million in contract incentives by not being named an All-Star starter this season, failing to qualify for the "Derrick Rose provision" which balloons a young player's pay for reaching superstar status -- either through two straight All-Star starts or winning the regular-season MVP -- early in his career.

That revelation occurred when John Wall, expectedly, and Kyle Lowry, somewhat surprisingly, were named the starting backcourt for the East on Thursday. Since that point, Irving put up 18 points on the Hornets while helping to hold Kemba Walker to 3-for-14 shooting, 21 on the Thunder while harassing Russell Westbrook into a 7-for-26 night and then the aforementioned Detroit-Portland offensive explosion that coincided with D.J. Augustin (five turnovers) and Damian Lillard (4-for-19) also struggling.

So if the entrapments of superstardom don't necessarily do it for him, it's not like he's just about the money either or you'd better believe he would be sulking about being shut out of that extra payday, rather than shining on both ends of the court as the Cavs kept winning games.

Yes, there's a bit of an iconoclast element to Irving, but there's an undeniable will there, too.

Just take the way Wednesday went for him. He started off the game 0-for-7, but this was his response to that:

"It's just the law of averages," Irving said. "I felt like the shots that I was taking in the beginning were good shots. They were hitting the back [of the] rim, which I was pretty happy about. And I mean, I've started worse than that before."

Then, after starting the fourth quarter by missing five of his first seven shots and coming to the bench for a quick two-minute sub after the Cavs' 14-point lead had been whittled down to one, he came back in to score 10 points in the final 4:07, no basket bigger than a go-ahead 3-pointer with 6.4 seconds left to break a 94-94 tie.

Blatt called for an isolation for Irving, encouraging him to make a play to get into the paint where he could either score or get fouled. Irving chose to pull up from 25 feet instead.

"Obviously our coaching staff was thinking one thing, I was thinking another and we just met in the middle, and I'm gracious that the shot went in and I had the confidence from my teammates and my coaching staff to go out and make a big-time shot like that," Irving said.

The shot went in. The Q went nuts. The 20,562 fans in attendance will surely take home their Anderson Varejao blanket giveaways from the night and think of Irving whenever they look at Varejao's microfiber face in the future.

And Irving, looking much like a superstar, stood at center court and screamed.

"I was really, really emotional at that moment," he later admitted.

He played the part in every way, stepping up in James' absence to get the Cavs just their second win in 10 attempts this season when the four-time MVP sits out.

"What Kyrie did is for the pantheon," Blatt said. "That's something that everybody here in Cleveland will always be able to relish and treasure."

But the question is whether Irving will hold onto it with the same reverence. He'll continue to try to define being a star by his own standards.

"I'm just thankful that the fans were here and my teammates were here and we got the win," Irving said. "That's it, simply put."