Christmas Day NBA Roundup: Kyrie Irving Writes Another Chapter in Growing Legend

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistDecember 26, 2016

CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 25:  Kyrie Irving #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers drives to the basket against the Golden State Warriors during the game on December 25, 2016 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE  (Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images)
David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

In a game that saw LeBron James catch fire from beyond the arc and the Golden State Warriors build a 14-point fourth-quarter lead, Kyrie Irving made the ending about him.

It didn't look like the Cleveland Cavaliers would pull off a 109-108 victory in this NBA Finals rematch. They entered the final frame Sunday shooting under 35 percent from the floor, staving off each Warriors run with a steady diet of offensive rebounds and a supernova LeBron James (31 points, 13 rebounds, four assists).

But Golden State opened the fourth with a 7-0 blitz, extending its lead to a game-high 14. That felt like the end.

Kevin Durant (36 points, 15 rebounds) was in rhythm. Klay Thompson (24 points), seldom idle, kept the Cavaliers defense on its toes away from the ball. Stephen Curry (15 points, three assists) could barely buy a bucket, but he set quality screens, and the Warriors didn't seem to need him.

That should have been the story coming out of this game: the impossibility that is Golden State.

Curry was quiet offensively, but it didn't matter. The Warriors shot under 40 percent on wide-open looks, but whatever. They were going to leave Cleveland with a victory anyway. The ability to win imperfectly, if ugly, is part of the reason signing Durant was so huge, as Yahoo Sports' Dan Devine noted:

But then the Cavaliers happened.

More specifically, Irving happened: He shot 6-of-11 from the field and scored 14 of his 25 points in the fourth. He dished out two assists, picked up three steals and then, with Cleveland trailing by one inside 10 seconds to play, drilled the game-winning bucket over Thompson:

Irving's Christmas Day heroics are a lower-stakes callback to his championship-clinching three-pointer in Game 7 of the NBA Finals last season. Only this time, instead of working against Curry on the perimeter, he was attacking Thompson—a 6'7" wing recognized for his defensive chops across multiple positions.

Moments like this are not foreign to Irving. They're a part of his everyday job description this side of Cleveland's improbable title upset.

Indeed, Irving is shooting just 41.7 percent inside two minutes to play in games being decided by five points or fewer. But the Cavaliers are going to him more than anyone else: He has a higher usage rate than James in these situations, and his crunch-time plus/minus is second only to the four-time league MVP.

It's not a late-game transition that feels forced, either. It's organic. It even makes sense.

The LeBron-Kyrie partnership is emerging to include a more self-sufficient Irving—which is scary.
The LeBron-Kyrie partnership is emerging to include a more self-sufficient Irving—which is scary.David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

Defenses won't pack the paint when Irving goes one-on-one, because the threat of James still exists. And James' first instinct, for the most part, has always been to defer; playing off the ball, almost as a decoy, profiles as just another assist for him.

"That kid is special," James said of Irving's Christmas game-winner, per the NBA on Twitter. "It was never in doubt. That's what he do."

None of this means the torch is being passed in Cleveland. Irving is having a fantastic season; he is the only player on the team averaging more than 23 points and five assists while shooting better than 40 percent from downtown. But James is still the alpha.

Nor does the Cavaliers' four-game winning streak against the Warriors, keyed by Irving's performance in the clutch, give them an irrevocable edge. 

"The way we lost that game," Thompson said Sunday, per the Bay Area News Group's Anthony Slater, "we gave them a gift."

He's right.

Cleveland will be hard-pressed to win another best-of-seven bout with Golden State if it needs to erase double-digit fourth-quarter deficits while sticking to an eight-man rotation. Depth will be an issue even with a healthy J.R. Smith (thumb surgery), and the Warriors won't shoot 30 percent from long range every time they're forced to play at the Cavaliers' speed. 

Still, as ESPN.com's Zach Lowe pointed out, there is a been-there, done-that feel to the way Cleveland plays Golden State:

James is the primary author of the Cavaliers' poise under pressure. He is putting down more than 37 percent of his threes for the third time in his career and can make any given play, at any particular moment, no matter how implausible.

The Cavaliers, remember, are statistical sewage whenever James takes a seat. Irving's absence has no such effect on their performance. There is no wholesale transformation taking place in Cleveland; James is the team's best player, and Irving isn't on the verge of poaching MVP votes from his partner.

But where the Cavaliers once needed James to be the guy with the ball in hands at the end of close games, Irving is, shot-by-shot, moment-by-moment, becoming a crunch-time safety net all his own.

        

The Knicks Are a Mirage

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 25:  Jae Crowder #99 of the Boston Celtics defends against Carmelo Anthony #7 of the New York Knicksat Madison Square Garden on December 25, 2016 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downl
Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Do not let the New York Knicks' winning record (16-14) and proximity to the Eastern Conference's No. 3 seed fool you: They are not a good basketball team.

That much became clear during a 119-114 loss to the Boston Celtics. In fact, that much becomes clear anytime they match up with squads that don't stink, per Posting and Toasting's Joe Flynn:

Losing by five points doesn't usually imply anything sinister. And there will be those who point to an unlikely contested three in crunch time from Marcus Smart (15 points, seven assists) as the difference:

But the Knicks defense was terrible from wire to wire. Almost half of the Celtics' field-goal attempts went unchallenged, and Isaiah Thomas' (27 points, four assists) pick-and-rolls kept torching New York.

Isolation sets ruled the day on offense: the Knicks dished out 11 assists on 41 made baskets. Derrick Rose scored 25 points but dropped just three dimes while routinely forgetting Kristaps Porzingis existed. Carmelo Anthony, who was ice-cold save for a 15-point third quarter, got pick-pocketed by Avery Bradley when trying to go one-on-one during a crucial possession down the stretch.

New York is now 2-10 against outfits with winning records. And it has a lower net rating (minus-3.0) than last year (minus-2.8) when it collected a pitiful 32 victories.

Chemistry can still be an issue on the offensive end, and the 25th-place defense might improve as Joakim Noah sheds that final layer of rust and Porzingis learns to defend in space.

By no means, though, are these Knicks special. They're a low-level playoff unit, speeding toward a probable first-round exit, and nothing more.

Here Comes Santa Claus LaMarcus Aldridge

SAN ANTONIO, TX - DECEMBER 25: LaMarcus Aldridge #12 of the San Antonio Spurs looks on during the game against the Chicago Bulls on December 25, 2016 at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by d
Mark Sobhani/Getty Images

LaMarcus Aldridge hasn't always been a star for the San Antonio Spurs, but you'd never know that during the team's 119-100 victory over the Chicago Bulls

The power forward gave his troops an early Christmas present by making his first 11 shots from the field, and he finished with a sensational line: 33 points, nine rebounds and an assist on 15-of-20 shooting. Not only was this the most he'd scored in 2016-17, but it was one of the highest point totals Chicago had allowed this year.

The San Antonio Express-News' Jeff McDonald is referring to a 2006 contest against the Phoenix Suns in which Fabricio Oberto exploded for 22 points on an 11-of-11 performance. But that's not who we should be comparing Aldridge to, because while Oberto's performance was an opportunity-aided anomaly, these Spurs kept feeding their big man. 

We have to compare him to himself. 

Aldridge hasn't been able to match what he did during his first season in San Antonio, when he gained comfort down the stretch and became a featured offensive option for the playoffs. NBA Math has the details: 

His numbers are down in 2016-17, he's had a worse showing in plenty of counting stats, and his percentages have followed suit. San Antonio's net rating has even declined by 6.6 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. 

But this game showed that trend may not be sustainable. 

The Spurs kept pounding the ball in to Aldridge, letting him knock down jumpers and finish plays around the rim. And their offense didn't suffer for it; they outscored Chicago by 14 points while he was on the court, per ESPN.com

Momentum and confidence are unpredictable things in the NBA, and Aldridge's cementing those intangibles would make one of the Western Conference's front-runners more dangerous. Kawhi Leonard is still thriving and living on the fringes of MVP consideration, and this deep team is coalescing—as always—under head coach Gregg Popovich's supervision. 

Add in another All-Star contributor to this 25-6 powerhouse, and nightmares will follow. 

— B/R's Adam Fromal

              

Russell Westbrook's Giving Spirit

It's easy to focus on Russell Westbrook's scoring. 

The dynamic point guard can rocket by virtually any defender and explode toward the rim for a thunderous finish. His pull-up jumpers are athletic marvels, even when they clang off the iron. His gaudy point totals are quickly becoming nothing short of legendary. 

But on Christmas, Westbrook was in a giving mood. He still recorded 31 points and seven rebounds during the Oklahoma City Thunder's 112-100 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves at Chesapeake Energy Arena, but his 15 dimes were even more notable. Especially in the third quarter.

As you can see below, Westbrook carved apart the Minnesota defense with ease:

But it didn't stop there. This feed to Steven Adams was fantastic: 

Ditto for the highlight-reel pass below, which led to Westbrook's exhorting the crowd and high-fiving a young fan sitting in the front row: 

This wasn't a game that featured Westbrook feasting on easy opportunities; his assists sparked the OKC offense. He consistently pushed the Wolves back onto their heels and then capitalized with his fantastic vision. Often operating a half-second ahead of the opposition, he routinely squeezed the ball into tight spaces and showed no compunction sharing the rock. 

Add it to the ever-growing list of 2016-17 heroics from this MVP front-runner.

What can't he do? 

— B/R's Adam Fromal

            

The Streak Is Over

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 25: Jordan Clarkson #6 of the Los Angeles Lakers handles the ball against the LA Clippers on December 25, 2016 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloadi
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

With a 111-102 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center, the Los Angeles Lakers beat their geographic rivals for the first time in a dozen games, per Elias Sports Bureau. And it's amazing how different the rosters looked the last time the Lakers emerged as the superior squad, all the way back on Oct. 29, 2013

A little over three years ago, the Clippers rolled out Jared Dudley, J.J. Redick, Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan for the opening tip. This time, they were missing Griffin and Paul to injuries, and we know that's not good news for the organization.    

In 2013, the Lakers featured Pau Gasol, Steve Blake, Nick Young, Steve Nash and Shawne Williams, with Jordan Farmar, Xavier Henry, Jodie Meeks and Wesley Johnson coming off the pine. This time, a horde of youngsters and veteran role players managed to score in double figures, including each member of the starting five:

  • Nick Young: 19 points
  • Timofey Mozgov: 19 points
  • D'Angelo Russell: 14 points
  • Luol Deng: 13 points
  • Julius Randle: 13 points
  • Brandon Ingram: 10 points off the bench

The Lakers may be on the rise, but they've struggled immensely after a hot start to the season and still have plenty of growing to do before emerging as legitimate contenders. As for the Clippers, this game wasn't representative of their lofty abilities when Paul and Griffin are healthy. 

But enjoy the end of the streak all the same. The NBA is better with a more subtle delineation between Los Angeles' two outfits. 

— B/R's Adam Fromal

       

Sunday's Scores

  • Boston Celtics 119, New York Knicks 114
  • Cleveland Cavaliers 109, Golden State Warriors 108
  • San Antonio Spurs 119, Chicago Bulls 100
  • Minnesota Timberwolves 100, Oklahoma City Thunder 112
  • Los Angeles Clippers 102, Los Angeles Lakers 111

             

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com. Salary commitments via Basketball Insiders.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @danfavale.

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