With the game ball safely tucked under his arm, Kyrie Irving stood under the basket and accepted congratulations from awed teammates following a performance none of them will soon forget.
He slapped some hands, hugged a beaming LeBron James and then handed the ball to the Cavaliers’ security director – a turnover of joy.
This one was a keeper.
It’s not every day you score 57 points. It’s not every day you bring the defending NBA champions to their knees. It’s not every day you upstage the irrepressible James. And, it’s not every day you leave Charles Barkley speechless.
Cleveland’s awesome guard did it all Thursday night, scoring a franchise-record 57, zipping around the floor with stunning ease and dropping 3-pointers from every angle like he was an avatar in a video game as the Cavs beat the San Antonio Spurs 128-125 in overtime, a game for the ages.
Irving was spectacular, stunning, and simply sublime.
“Kyrie Irving was unstoppable,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “I don’t know how to guard that. He did a hell of a job. We all know how talented he is, but he really went to a new level tonight.”
This wasn’t necessarily a breakout for the soon-to-be 23-year-old Irving. More of a validation.
Irving has arrived.
After all, he’s already been a No. 1 overall pick, a three-time All-Star and regarded as one of the league’s elite in a stellar class of point guards. He scored 55 in a game against Portland earlier this year, and Irving has shown a maturity off the floor that has impressed even his toughest critics.
This, though, was something more. This was Irving’s apex.
“The kid is special,” said James. “We all know it we all see it and for him to go out and put up a performance like he did was incredible.”
Let us count the ways:
– Irving’s stat line was almost otherworldly. He made 20 of 32 field goals, going 7 of 7 on 3-pointers. He went 10 of 10 from the free-throw line and added five assists, three rebounds and four steals in 46 minutes. Most of his baskets came on did-he-just-do-that? drives to the rim, where he spun in layups with both hands.
– His 57 points were the most in the league this season, broke the Cavs’ franchise record (James scored 56 in 2005), and Irving tied the record for the most points against the Spurs at home, matching the 57 Golden State’s Purvis Short laid on San Antonio back in 1984.
– Irving scored 16 points – 15 straight in one stretch, and Cleveland’s last nine – in the fourth quarter. He added 11 more in overtime.
– With the Cavs down 110-107 in regulation, Irving knocked down an off-balance 3-pointer as the horn sounded to force OT.
“One of the best individual performances I’ve ever seen,” the loquacious Barkley said during TNT’s broadcast, surely echoing the sentiments of anyone who stayed up late to watch two of the league’s best squads.
Irving’s magical night would have been an afterthought if Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard hadn’t clanked two free throws with 4.3 seconds left in regulation. Those misses set up perhaps Irving’s finest moment, the game-tying 3-pointer from the right wing that sucked the air out of raucous AT&T Center.
Coming off a screen set at the top of the key from Tristan Thompson, Irving got separation from Tony Parker, caught the inbounds pass from James and took one dribble to the right. He rose and buried his jaw-dropping 3 over the extended arm of Leonard, who immediately flashed two fingers to the officials in a vain attempt to diminish Irving’s clutch bucket – the signature field goal of the four-year guard’s blossoming stardom.
“As long as my elbow’s pointed at the rim, I feel like it has a great chance to go in,” Irving said of his signature 3. “I learned that from Kobe Bryant.”
The lessons he’s getting from James are deeper.
The two have grown closer during their first season together and the look of pride on James’ face following the game spoke to the bond they have developed.
Although he has never been to the playoffs, Irving appears ready for the bigger stage. The one where a golden trophy is handed out after the final act. James is confident his younger teammate will be ready for more important games ahead.
“The best teacher in life is experience and I think tonight was a great experience for all the guys that haven’t been a part of huge games like this,” James said. “Not in the sense that it was nationally televised but (in the sense) of the competition. … That was a big step for our team. We’re going to have a few moments where you know we took a step forward and tonight was one of those moments.”
Irving made it all possible.
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