If the Kyrie Irving who scored 21 of his 32 points in the fourth quarter of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 121-115 victory over the Washington Wizards on Wednesday is here to stay, the other teams in the Eastern Conference don’t stand a chance.
LeBron James discussed Irving’s place among the rest of the NBA after the performance, per Dave McMenamin of ESPN: “He’s, if not the best, one or two best point guards in our league along with Steph.”
Irving took over the game in Washington and scored 10 points in a row in the final quarter to put the contest out of reach. He looked much more like a player in postseason form than one coming off a serious injury that kept him out of the majority of the 2015 NBA Finals and postponed his 2015-16 campaign until December.
It was the second straight notable outing for Irving, as he scored 25 points Monday against the Toronto Raptors. Cavaliers coach David Blatt discussed the playmaker, who has appeared in only seven games this season, per the Associated Press, via ESPN.com:
Those are two pretty big performances after being out for so long. It's only reasonable to expect that he's going to go through a process and still have days when he's better and days when he's going to have some effect of the many months that he was out. But it sure didn't look like that tonight.
It is worth mentioning Irving’s last two outings came against John Wall and Kyle Lowry, who are generally considered among the upper tier of point guards in the league and could stand in Cleveland’s way come playoff time. Irving recognized how important it is for him to be ready to go in those individual showdowns, per the Associated Press:
The first few games were just being able to solidify myself back in the league and being an elite athlete and get around guards. That was the hump I needed to get over, and now I think I'm starting to get over it going from game to game going against great matchups, great players every single night, great teams.
James said Irving is one of the best two point guards in the league, although the position is loaded with talent, including Wall, Lowry, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Mike Conley, Damian Lillard and Stephen Curry.
Still, the King may have a point, especially when his teammate is at his best. Irving is a three-time All-Star, won the 2011-12 Rookie of the Year, was the All-Star Game MVP in 2013-14 season and was a member of the All-NBA Third Team last season.
He averaged more than 20 points a night in each of the last three campaigns, can shoot from three-point range, and has silky-smooth ball-handling skills that allow him to blow past defenders and create space on the outside.
James was even campaigning for his teammate to be an All-Star this year, even though Irving has missed most of Cleveland’s games:
LeBron James @KingJames
#NBAVote @KyrieIrving2016-1-4 20:02:11
James discussed Irving’s All-Star chances and his overall importance, per the Associated Press: “At the end of the day, it doesn't matter how many games, he's an All-Star player. He's much more than just an all-star. He's much better than that. He's 23 years old, and he hasn't even scratched the surface yet.”
The fact that James mentioned Curry as the only other point guard who could possibly be better than the former Duke Blue Devils star stands out, especially since Cleveland will be juxtaposed against the defending MVP all season.
The Cavaliers are three games clear of the rest of the Eastern Conference and look to be well on their way to another trip to the Finals if they stay healthy, where Curry and the rest of the Golden State Warriors knocked them off last year. A rematch could be in store if the current standings hold (the Warriors are No. 1 in the Western Conference at 33-2).
Golden State is the ultimate measuring stick for Cleveland, and figuring out a way to slow down or at least match Curry (29.3 points per game behind 51 percent shooting from the field and 44.5 percent shooting from three-point range) could be the only way Cleveland wrestles the Larry O’Brien Trophy away from the defending champs.
That task will likely fall on Irving’s shoulders, and he could prove to be the difference after he wasn’t even healthy for last year’s showdown.