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FIBA run showcases Irving's potential

MADRID -- Amid a summer of renewal and upheaval for the Cleveland Cavaliers, the arrival of alpha dogs LeBron James and Kevin Love may, you might have assumed, had Kyrie Irving expecting to be moved from center stage to a supporting role.

If he performs as he did in Madrid on Sunday in leading Team USA to a 129-92 victory over Serbia in the FIBA Basketball World Cup gold-medal game, new Cavs head coach David Blatt will surely opt against putting any constraints on his playmaking point guard.

Irving was almost perfect in an American destruction, shooting 10-for-13, including a perfect 6-for-6 from 3-point range, as the 22-year-old helped himself to the Tournament MVP prize and a game-high 26 points.

Six of those points came at the end of a 15-0 run that ruthlessly crushed any Serbian hopes of a monumental upset.

After Irving downed a jumper with 4:28 left in the first quarter, the defending World Cup champions never trailed again. And the mission that was laid out when these 12 players arrived at training camp in Las Vegas on July 28 was quickly and forcefully accomplished.

"With USA Basketball, you're part of something bigger than yourself," Irving said. "I put myself in there. Whatever coach needed, whatever all my teammates needed, I was willing to do every single day. I think we all shared that, the heart and passion.

"You're out there running up the court with Kenneth Faried, DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, guys who you're fans of but who you never get to play with in America. For me, I was taking advantage of every opportunity with these guys, every opportunity with the coaches, trying to learn from then, as much as possible to take back to my team. Enjoying every day because nothing is guaranteed."

To think, remarkably, that Irving could have instead been playing for Australia, where he was born, when the nation came with a full court press before the 2012 Olympics to persuade him to pledge allegiance to their cause. Instead, he held out, confident in his own ability to break into the United States' lineup, a path eased by the absences of so many of the absolute A-List this summer.

The dozen that remained at the close of the selection process were young and inexperienced in FIBA competition. Returning home without World Cup gold was regarded as a possibility. It would not, perhaps, have been met with the surprise of previous failures.

Maybe, Irving hinted, Team USA's youth and inexperience served as a motivation.

"We talked about it with all these guys," he said. "The countdown to games, every day staying ready. Being kind of a young old guy on this team, this is my fourth year [as a pro] but I'm still a young guy on this team.

"I was trying to keep everybody as ready as possible, whatever they needed. Whether it was advice, getting a rebound, a steal, encouraging everyone."

That became a contagious approach in the final, where that early deficit was turned into a 35-21 advantage after just one quarter. Others jumped on board, with James Harden adding 23 points and emerging as Irving's only real rival for MVP honors.

"In a big-time game, you have to make plays," the Houston Rockets guard said. "I kind of started it off, Kyrie kept it going and everybody else followed along."

The USA smoothly surged as much as 40 points in front, the contest decided long before the final buzzer. As the confetti fell, Irving and Faried danced together on court, their euphoria on public display. The bonds, during a journey that has spanned both sides of the Atlantic, now run deep.

"I did this with a bunch of guys that I'll call my brothers for the rest of my life," Irving smiled.

They are world champions now -- and forever.

In two weeks time, Irving will face a fresh challenge. To find his place in the new-look Cavaliers, to forge some continuity with what already exists in Cleveland and buy into the extreme makeover that has been schemed over the past three months.

The World Cup offered a glimpse into how Irving might evolve, and into what the all-new big three and those around them might achieve in unison if they can buy into a solitary goal.

A way might need to be found to accommodate not one alpha dog, nor two, but three.

"Going back to Cleveland, everyone will have their assumptions of what's going to happen, but I don't think anybody knows what will happen until you guys see us play," Irving said. "Playing with this [USA] team, you have so many pieces to go to.

"It's easy for me to take a back seat when Stephen Curry's hot. Or when James Harden's hot. Or AD [Andre Drummond] is in the post and he's killing another big man. It's easy to do that. It's not hard. I'll have a different role for the Cleveland Cavaliers but playing for USA Basketball, these are guys I've dreamt of playing with. Guys I can throw it to anytime and I've no problem doing that, whatever is needed to win.

"Playing with the best in the world. That's where I feel I should be. And going back to Cleveland, I'll have the same mindset, working extremely hard every single day."

Now, at least, he knows what it is required. And more importantly, just how good it feels to be a champion.