Take It from Kobe: Kyrie Irving Has Become Key to Unlocking Cavs' Full Potential

Kevin DingNBA Senior WriterMarch 13, 2016

Mar 5, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving (2) directs the offense against the Boston Celtics during the second quarter at Quicken Loans Arena. The Cavs won 120-103. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

LOS ANGELES — Finding an edge on the Golden State Warriors in the 2016 playoffs will require not only a dedication of purpose but the emotional confidence that a historic team can be toppled.

It won't be easy.

Perhaps Kevin Durant will be distracted by his future. Maybe Kawhi Leonard will be too emotionless in the present. And LeBron James must still be aware that his past includes twice as many titles as Stephen Curry.

One guy, though, is in particular position for the job—and possesses the ability to do something about it.

Kyrie Irving.

He holds a unique blend of inherent drive ("He has a killer mentality," Kobe Bryant said) and history of misfortune (capped by his broken kneecap in the 2015 NBA Finals) that can turn his fire into an inferno this spring.

Irving is also the perfect all-three-levels offensive player.

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 10: Kyrie Irving #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers shoots the ball during the game against the Los Angeles Lakers on March 10, 2016 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that
Noah Graham/Getty Images

And that attack is being unleashed at a new level under head coach Tyronn Lue, who envisions the Cleveland Cavaliers being an offensive juggernaut with improved ball movement and dedication to maximize either James or Irving on the weak side of the floor with fewer defenders.

With an eighth consecutive game of at least 20 points in the Sunday showcase against the Clippers at Staples Center, Irving would have the longest such streak of his career. The Cavaliers are scoring far more since dumping former head coach David Blatt, but with or without him, they have shown the Warriors aren't the only unstoppable offense in the NBA.

Cleveland is 35-4 this season when it scores at least 100 points—a pace that, for the record, is better than the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls' fabled 72-10 mark the Warriors are nearing.

Given the odds that the Cavaliers will be in the NBA Finals representing the weaker Eastern Conference, the chances of a surprise finish to this season rest largely with Irving.

Bryant brought up Irving's name after their final meeting of the season Thursday as the guy who might stir the necessary "tension" within the Cavs if they are to become a championship team.

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 10:  Kyrie Irving #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers talks to Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers after the game at STAPLES Center on March 10, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

"LeBron's not that person," Bryant said.

James acknowledged that last month, saying he absolutely leads differently than Bryant and others who might fight a teammate to make a point.

"It's never been me," James said then.

But Irving, who turns 24 later this month, has an unflinching belief in himself that makes him capable of more than most understand. With the talent to be a rock star player, Irving expects to seize center stage, too.

It's why Irving, like James, won his first All-Star MVP award at the ripe old age of 21.

Irving scored 57 on the defending champion San Antonio Spurs' court last season for an overtime victory.

And in the much-heralded final LeBron vs. Kobe game Thursday, it was Irving stepping into moments for the game's biggest baskets—whether after killer crossovers or in the flow of the offense—to push Cleveland's lead back up and deflate Lakers fans' hopes.

The acronym Irving puts on his signature Nike sneaker line is "J.B.Y.": Just Be You.

And if Irving needs more of a push to embrace the intra-team tension Bryant said is needed for all to reach their best on-edge selves, it's not altogether unfair to wonder if James believes Irving is all that Irving believes Irving is.

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

Late Thursday night, James rattled off an offhand list of the game's greats from Bryant's generation to James' generation to the new crew. He mentioned Curry, Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and even Klay Thompson. But he didn't mention his teammate, taken 10 spots before Thompson in the 2011 draft.

No matter the slight, Irving's incentive to perform will come from a far deeper place.

As much as is at stake for James' legacy in this title pursuit, Irving has a far less complicated desire to win.

And because it is so basic, it's loaded with power.

Irving did little but lose early in his NBA career, joining the bitter, ugly Cavaliers' world a year after James' departure for Miami. Irving didn't even get to savor the winning program of Duke before that, playing only 11 games in his lone season there because of injury before becoming the NBA's No. 1 overall draft pick.

With James back in Cleveland and having changed the franchise's fortunes overnight, Irving fought through other injuries late last season before his basketball year ended suddenly in overtime of Game 1 of the Finals against the Warriors.

Above his broken kneecap, Irving buried his head in his hands in the visitors' locker room that night.

If he gets the chance to go at Golden State again this year, and pick up where he left off in blocking Curry's layup late in regulation of that opener, you better believe Irving's going to let loose his full force.

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 04:  Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors goes up against Kyrie Irving #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first quarter during Game One of the 2015 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on June 4, 2015 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO U
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

This season, he has gone from wondering, rehabbing and sitting out the start to racing with the baton Lue handed him. It's no coincidence Irving gave Lue a hug long before time expired in the victory over the Lakers.

Communication with Lue has been key, Irving said—but even more important, it has been Lue's clear "confidence in me."

Understand the confluence of momentum and motivation for Irving here, and it's clear he may be capable of shaking up everything we think we know about how this season will end.

 

Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.