He certainly backed up that reputation Wednesday night against the Milwaukee Bucks. With three minutes left in the game and Milwaukee leading by 12, Irving put on a sensational one-man scoring display, scoring 10 straight points in about 90 seconds.
With 45 seconds left in the game, and Cleveland in possession of both the ball and a one-point lead, Irving attempted to put the Cavs on his back once again. This time, however, he struggled, missing two shots and turning the ball over once as the Bucks took back the lead and held on for 109-104 victory.
Irving played a team-high 35-and-a-half minutes and expended a huge amount of energy bringing the Cavs back. It's hard to fault him for running out of gas after such an amazing performance. Still, it's worth asking whether or not some of the other Cavs should have at least touched the ball in those last few possessions.
The Last Four Possession: From Playmaker to Chucker
The Cavaliers had four possessions in the last minute of the game, and Irving had the ball in all four of them. Let's break down each possession by situation, thought process and execution.
1. 1:00 left, Cavs down two
Irving has the ball on the right side, near the spot where he had hit an impossible fall-away jumper a minute earlier. This time, however, he passes to Anderson Varejao at the foul line. The Bucks defense collapses on Varejao, who passes to C.J. Miles in the left corner for a wide-open three. The shot goes in, and the Cavs take a one-point lead.
This play was simply perfect, in both thought and execution. The Bucks defense was out-of-sorts after Irving's 10-point outburst, and both he and Varejao took advantage of the situation to swing the ball to Miles (a 38.4 percent three-point shooter) in the weak-side corner. Even if he had missed the shot, the process was flawless.
2. 0:33.9 seconds left, Cavs up one
Irving misses a layup in traffic. Milwaukee grabs the rebound.
Not much wrong with the process here. There were still about 10 seconds left on the shot clock, but Irving and the Cavs were clearly playing for the two-for-one opportunity. The only problem: After seven straight minutes of unconscious shooting, this missed layup was the first sign Irving might be running out of gas.
3. 0:24.8 seconds left, Cavs down one
Irving dribbles the ball off his foot driving on the right wing.
This one is tricky. It was clear, by this point, nobody but Irving would be handling the ball.
Varejao set a screen, and Bucks center Zaza Pachulia switched onto Irving. Irving had a step on Pachulia, but Bucks power forward John Henson was waiting under the basket, knowing that there was virtually no chance Irving would pass. Henson would have undoubtedly come out on Irving, meaning he would have needed to negotiate two bigs, make the shot or hope one of them fouled him.
Was it the best decision? We'll never know, since he dribbled the ball off his foot on his way to the basket. At this point, it seemed clear that he was nearly out of gas.
4. 0:08.0 seconds left, Cavs down three
Irving shoots from the right corner off the inbound and misses. Milwaukee grabs the rebound.
This play was just bizarre all around. The Cavs inbounded the ball with 13 seconds on the clock, an eternity in the NBA. Irving receives the inbound in the corner, covered by O.J. Mayo. Now Mayo, who is two inches taller, has Irving pinned against the sideline.
Irving dribbles away from the corner and shoots a terrible, well-contested three with eight seconds on the clock. Irving is so weak on the shot, and the shot is so difficult, it came within an eyelash of missing the rim altogether.
Irving could have passed, reset and still shot with plenty of time left on the clock.
A player like Kyrie Irving has to walk a fine line. He is the team's best scorer, but he's also the point guard, and few teams make the playoffs on the back of a shoot-first point guard. He is a dynamic finisher, but he is also only 6'2". He is not Kevin Durant or Dirk Nowitzki; he cannot simply shoot over most defenders. He needs to involve his teammates to be successful.
For too long, Irving has been the best scorer on a bad Cavaliers team, and it's been leading to some bad habits. The Cavs fancy themselves as playoff contenders, but if they truly expect to win more games and stay above .500, then their star point guard needs to start trusting his teammates in the clutch.
If the other four players are good enough, then the Cavs will win more games because of it. If they are not good enough, then the Cleveland front office will need to find Irving some teammates who can help push the team over the top.
Cleveland is in danger of committing the cardinal NBA sin: simply treading water. A team with Kyrie Irving taking all the shots in the fourth quarter will be just good enough to scare teams but just bad enough to miss the postseason.
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