‘Special’ Kyrie Irving came to Cavaliers’ rescue

by Dave McMenamin, ESPN Staff Writer

OAKLAND, Calif. – The pregame message from the Cleveland Cavaliers’ established superstar to its budding one was part command, part encouragement.

The Cavs’ starters had just made their stroll, one by one, from the bench to the 3-point wing near the opposite sideline on Friday when a smiling LeBron James, normally stoic during this part of the night, emerged to greet his teammates.

As James slapped high-fives and exchanged specialized handshakes with members of the team, he soon found Kyrie Irving in front of him and delivered the young guard’s mission for Game 4 of the NBA Finals, should he choose to accept it.

“Be special,” James said.

And for most of the game, Irving answered the call, putting up 27 points on 11-for-18 shooting compared to Stephen Curry’s 25 points on 8-for-20 shooting through three quarters. The Cavs trailed by two heading into the fourth.

Then it all went off the rails. Curry went off for 13 points on 3-for-5 shooting in the final frame while Irving sputtered, going 3-for-10. TheGolden State Warriors ran away with an 11-point win and a 3-1 series lead.

With the stakes raised considerably, Monday’s Game 5 was another chance for Irving to deliver on James’ charge. Facing an elimination game at Oracle Arena, where Golden State was 50-3 this season, it would take a special kind of night to extend the series.

Irving delivered with 41 points on 17-for-24 shooting with six assists, besting Curry’s 25 points (8-for-21) and four assists. James scored 41 of his own, to go with 16 rebounds and seven assists, making him and Irving the first pair of teammates in league history to score 40-plus points in the same Finals game.

“There’s two guys that can be special on this team,” James, wide-eyed, told ESPN.com in the visitors locker room after confirming what he told Irving before Game 4.

The life of a shot-taker is an all-or-nothing proposition. When they fall, you’re celebrated. When they don’t, you’re scrutinized.

A favorite axiom of Doc Rivers, “It’s a make-or-miss league,” can be heard in postgame news conferences around the association on a nightly basis. The gap between being someone highly regarded as an efficient All-Star and someone labeled as a volume scorer comes down to only a few buckets going in or out every game.

A couple of days after Game 4, when Irving was this close to being special, he assessed what went wrong down the stretch.

“I just tried a few shots [that] I forced in the fourth quarter, that I felt like I had to,” he said. “I think it was a seven-point game, and I got the opportunity to hit a floater that I missed that I was really, really pissed off about.

"But those opportunities, they all come from just being aggressive, and I just have to stay in that mindset.”

His play was picked apart, and even though he was averaging more assists and steals than Curry and nearly as many points through the first four games, Irving’s one-on-one play was highlighted for all the wrong reasons. He shot just 14-for-39 in possessions where he shot the ball without the Cavs making a pass.

Still, the Cavs told him to keep it up.

“He can’t listen to the outside noise,” Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said after Game 5. “He has to do what we ask. We want him to be aggressive, we want him to attack the basket and we want him to score the basketball. That’s what he does. You can’t take away his game. You’re going to get assists by being aggressive and that’s what he does.

"Every single time they switch and we have a mismatch, he’s one guy that can take advantage of it off the dribble. We need him to do that to be productive in this series.”

The day before Game 5, Warriors coach Steve Kerr was asked to name an example of a past player stepping up when his team was undermanned, considering Draymond Green would be out with a suspension.

Kerr, who grew up a Los Angeles Lakers fan, cited a 20-year-old Magic Johnsonfilling in for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at center in Game 6 of the 1980 Finalsagainst the Philadelphia 76ers. Johnson, in his sixth Finals game, had 42 points in a Lakers win.

In just his sixth Finals game of his career, Irving, at the ripe old age of 24, had his breakout night with 41 points Monday. The Cavs won. Not the whole thing, like Johnson’s game secured, but the chance to compete another day.

And while Irving didn’t jump center like Johnson did, the fact that he shot 10-for-14 on contested opportunities against the Warriors, or the fact that he scored seven straight points in less than a minute of game time after Golden State cut the Cavs’ lead to just six halfway through the fourth quarter, might have been just as impressive.

It certainly impressed James. Irving matched Dwyane Wade for the most points one of James’ teammates has ever scored in a playoff game and also became his first teammate to have three straight 30-point games in the postseason.

“You’ve got a guy like this who is very special,” James said. “It’s probably one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen live.”

Asked to characterize Irving’s demeanor, James said, “Just calm. Just calm for 48 minutes. Obviously he played 40 minutes, but even in the eight minutes that he was sitting down, he was just calm.”

It’s a trait that will help Cleveland face the overwhelming task of becoming the first team in Finals history to come back from a 3-1 deficit to win it all, breaking an 0-for-32 mark while also becoming the first team in 52 years to win one for The Land.

It’s unprecedented stuff that the Cavs are after. Kind of like the night Irving had in Game 5.

James was asked if he had ever seen anything before quite like Irving’s performance.

“Nobody has,” he replied.

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