Irving was on the wrong end of yet another point guard matchup Sunday, as John Wall led the Washington Wizards to a 113-99 blowout win against the LeBron James-less (rest) Cavs. It was the latest in a string of games in which Irving's selfish offensive approach and ineffective defense occupied major-story status.
Wall scored 21 points and handed out 13 assists in 29 minutes before sitting out the fourth quarter of a contest already decided. And though Irving returned fire with 28 points and six assists of his own, the plus-minus tale suggested Wall's numbers (and, more importantly, the way he got them) meant a whole lot more. Irving tossed up a minus-22 that looked even uglier against Wall's plus-23.
You can't get far citing individual plus-minus from a single game as persuasive evidence, but as part of a larger picture of Irving's play, the figures fit.
We'll start with Chris Haynes of Cleveland.com throwing shade Irving's way: "Irving...chose not to launch a half-court shot before the first-half buzzer expired. ... Although this goes on across the league, it's a selfish act that's not conducive to winning, especially when your team is playing short-handed."
Michael Lee of The Vertical offered a backhanded attaboy shortly after Irving nailed that deliberate post-buzzer heave (yes, he made it):
At halftime, Kyrie Irving is 6 asts from his 19th career pt-ast double double. John Wall is 3 asts shy of 34th double double - this season— Michael Lee (@MrMichaelLee) February 28, 2016
Wall, of course, got that 34th double-double. He also got wherever he wanted against Irving, who registered just a pair of helpers in the second half.
After Kyle Lowry torched Irving on the way to 43 points in a 99-97 win against Cleveland on Friday, and after a lengthy streak of opposing point guards tearing up Irving's Cavs (chronicled here by ESPNCleveland.com's Bruce Hooley), this latest debacle against Washington was painfully familiar. More worrisome, it's the result of opponents knowing they can attack Irving on defense and trusting him not to make anyone better on offense.
NBA.com's John Schuhmann has the data proving teams are wise to attack Irving:
Opposing point guards have averaged 25.8 ppg on an eFG% of 66.3% vs. the Cavs since the All-Star break: pic.twitter.com/ARAMA44MQm— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) February 29, 2016
And Jared Dudley explained the bit about exploiting Irving's offense, per Kyle Weidie of TruthAboutIt.net:
There's something to be said for taking what the defense allows. And if the Wizards wanted to make Irving a scorer, maybe he was right to look for his own shots. Irving, though, is generally a little too willing to take that bait, and it's difficult to distinguish his play in situations like Sunday's from the way he normally approaches the game.
He may just be another in a long line of players who have point guard size and handles but none of the critical make-others-better wiring. This may just be who Kyrie Irving is.
And that's probably fine if the superhuman James is around to make all of Cleveland's decisions. But Cleveland's most important player keeps giving off hints of mortality. He had to rest against Washington. His outside shot is a wreck. His defensive battery is in perpetual conserve-power mode.
Irving's injury meant he wasn't part of James' near-Pyrrhic efforts in last year's NBA Finals, and comments he made afterward contributed to the line of thinking that emerged: If the Cavs' other stars had been healthy, things would have been different.
If Irving had been healthy last June against the Golden State Warriors, maybe he would have proved he was capable of elevating his play. Or, maybe he would have been exposed so thoroughly, we wouldn't be facing the question of whether he can do more than he's doing. We'd know for sure there wasn't some next level to his game.
Missing the Finals preserved that strange sense of hope. Continually unmet, it has now morphed into frustration.
"How many more games can Cleveland get out of Irving like the one he played Friday before they lose trust in what he's made of?," Dave McMenamin of ESPN.com wondered after Irving managed 10 points and only one assist in that loss to Toronto.
And how about this, per McMenamin: "Don't think it's a coincidence that James described Lowry's night by saying, 'that's what All-Stars do,' on the same night Irving wasn't up to par. There was a message James was sending."
The good news is this is the kind of stuff analysts and teammates lay at the feet of a player they believe can be better. This is a disappointment, and nobody is ever disappointed in someone they know has done their best.
Irving looks like a player who can do whatever he wants—get wherever he wants. So we assume the way he's playing (call it selfish, call it lazy, call it whatever you like) is the result of some deliberate agenda. We think he can change, and it seems like he just doesn't want to.
This may be who Irving is, though we're less certain than we'd like to be because we didn't see him perform on the biggest stage last season. The Cavs had better figure it out for sure by the time they get there again.
Kent Bazemore Seems Better
Kent Bazemore may or may not have broken his massive slump, scoring a team-high 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting in an ugly 87-76 win over the Charlotte Hornets on Sunday. But at the very least, he's in a better state than he was a week ago.
Through his first 10 February games, Bazemore averaged just 9.1 points on 33.7 percent shooting (and that includes a 23-point outing on Feb. 7). Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution captured the rangy wing's distress: "Bazemore spent several minutes with his face buried in his hands following a loss to the Bucks on Saturday. He quickly dressed and exited the locker room after a loss to the Warriors on Monday."
Flash-forward to Sunday and Bazemore looked bouncier, celebrating Al Horford's buckets on the bench and enjoying his first efficient scoring night in weeks.
The Hawks have won two straight after dropping five of their previous six, though their 33-27 record means they're only one bad week away from slipping out of the top eight in the East. Bazemore, no matter how much better he's feeling, is only going to play a supporting role in the rest of Atlanta's season. But this Hawks team, woefully short on wing production, needs him to contribute.
Blazers' Fun Overdose Continues
Damian Lillard got loose for points in the first quarter of the Portland Trail Blazers' 111-102 road win against the Indiana Pacers, extending a personal-best streak in the process, per Trail Blazers PR:
Damian Lillard has scored 20+ points in 10 straight games for the first time in his NBA career.— Trail Blazers PR (@TrailBlazersPR) February 28, 2016
That's pretty much what Lillard, who finished with a game-high 33 points, has been up to lately. In the midst of a career season, despite the departure of Portland's four other starters last summer, it's been Dame Time all the time.
The exciting development in this one, though, was the Blazers bench making short work of Indiana's reserves. Gerald Henderson was 8-of-9 from the field, and Meyers Leonard showed welcome signs of life in a dismal season, hitting four of his five three-point attempts and scoring 17 points in 21 minutes.
This is a big deal, per ESPN's Zach Lowe, as Leonard has spent much of the season lost:
What a performance by the Blazers on the second end of a road back-to-back. Leonard has fully regained his confidence.— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) February 29, 2016
With C.J. McCollum sustaining his early-season production and better help from backups, Lillard and the Blazers are off to a heck of a start on their six-game road trip through the East. Their March schedule will be brutal—road-heavy and littered with elite teams (Portland gets Toronto, Golden State, Oklahoma City and San Antonio in a two-week span from March 4-17). But it's hard to get too worried about the future when the present is so much fun.
Like the rest of us, Jason Quick of CSN Northwest, is digging it:
What a game. What a mid-season run. What a team. These Blazers sure are a good story.— Jason Quick (@jwquick) February 29, 2016
The Blazers keep winning against quality teams, and Lillard keeps getting help when he needs it. Result: Playoff prospects are starting to feel real.
Cory Joseph's A Nice Story and All...
Kyle Lowry rested Sunday, and he'd earned it. In his absence, the Raps earned a 114-101 defeat at the hands of the Detroit Pistons.
After hanging 43 points on the Cavaliers in Friday's win, the Raptors' leader deserved a break. And in taking that respite, Lowry gave us a good look at just how important he is to Toronto's success...not that we should have needed another reminder.
Cory Joseph, easily one of the offseason's best acquisitions, scored 10 points as a member of the starting lineup. Rookie Delon Wright actually wound up playing more minutes than Joseph, who picked up two early fouls and never re-established a rhythm. Neither replacement provided Lowry's offensive leadership or tenacity.
No shock there.
Credit Detroit, which shot a searing 57.7 percent from the field and 52.2 percent from deep. It levied a balanced attack (every starter had between 14 and 19 points and four bench players contributed at least eight) in upsetting the East's No. 2 seed. But it was clear the Raptors' intensity waned without their best player, per Josh Lewenberg of TSN in Toronto:
Raptors gave this game away, in more ways than 1. Sitting Lowry puts you in tough spot but no excuse for rest of team to sit this 1 out on D— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) February 29, 2016
Lowry has reached that rare level of stardom where he grows in our estimation whether he plays or he doesn't. Imagine what a deep postseason run might do for his stature.
Aaron Gordon Is Enjoying His Bigger Role
A dunk-contest effort for the ages made him a national headliner, but the Orlando Magic's decision to trade Tobias Harris could make Aaron Gordon a star.
Let's check in on how things are going for Orlando's hydraulic-limbed 20-year-old:
OK, sure. We've seen him put the ball in the hole acrobatically before. What else ya got?
Oh. Well, all right.
Gordon, in addition to highlights on both ends (get used to that, by the way), scored 18 points in the first half of the Magic's 130-116 win over the Philadelphia 76ers. He'd go on to finish with a career-high 22 on 7-of-10 shooting, including a 2-of-2 effort from long range. The last 20-year-old to post at least 22 points, seven rebounds and a pair of treys for the Magic was Harris.
It's getting harder and harder to come up with reasons Gordon won't be a beast—maybe something like Shawn Marion with better range and a little less defensive versatility. The more playing time the Magic can free up for his development, the better.
Because this is getting exciting.
The Mavs Hammered the Wolves
And Dwight Powell hammered in this dunk:
Joe Johnson Fits the Miami Model
Joe Johnson started and played well in his first game as a member of the Miami Heat, scoring 12 points on 5-of-10 shooting in 30 minutes, as the Heat dispatched the New York Knicks by a final of 98-81.
It was important for Johnson to hit the ground running (or jogging at least, as the 34-year-old isn't all that speedy in his 15th season) because the Heat are living firmly in the now. Goran Dragic was the youngest member of the starting lineup, and he'll be 30 in May. Miami, always a team with little regard for draft picks and in a permanent win-now mindset under Pat Riley, didn't add Johnson because they're building for the future.
Coach Spo says Joe Johnson will play tonight in NY.— Miami HEAT (@MiamiHEAT) February 28, 2016
"There's no waiting. There's no time like the present. We're ready to get started."
The Heat are short-term thinkers, and that approach works better for them than it does for most other teams. Maybe that's because veterans are always attracted to the city and weather. Dwyane Wade's successful pitch to Johnson wasn't exactly basketball-heavy, per Ethan Skolnick of the Miami Herald:
Dwyane Wade's sale pitch to Joe Johnson: "Live in Miami, man. Live in the best place."— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) February 28, 2016
Now 33-26, the Heat are in sole possession of the No. 4 seed in the East. And though it's unclear how far they'll get if Chris Bosh (whose status remains uncertain) can't return, they're committed to maxing out this season's potential.
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Stats courtesy of NBA.com. Accurate through games played Feb. 28.