CLEVELAND — As the Cleveland Cavaliers stared their nightmare scenario square in the eyes, temporarily losing their best player to foul trouble and having fallen into a first-half double-digit hole, Kyrie Irving saved the day. Paced by a 21-point third quarter and a playoff career-high 42 points overall, Irving gave the Cavs a 112-99 win over the Boston Celtics on Tuesday night in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals, putting his team up 3-1 in the series.
Behind Irving's big showing, Cleveland can return to Boston with a different mindset. Instead of being forced to play at least six games against the Celtics while the Golden State Warriors rested, the Cavaliers are now just one win away from a third straight trip to the NBA Finals.
Avoiding an even series was something that drove Irving during the comeback win.
"In the back of my mind, I was saying to myself that they cannot tie up this series," Irving said. "We cannot go to Boston 2-2. Then it becomes almost an even series."
More importantly, this is the type of performance (and mentality) that Cleveland must see from its floor general should it defend its title against Golden State. This squad needs someone to shoulder the load when LeBron James is off the court, and as a whole, it needs players who refuse to let a series turn in the opponents' favor.
After a somewhat ordinary start Tuesday, Irving took matters into his own hands when James hit the bench at the 6:46 mark of the second quarter with four fouls. At the time, the Cavaliers trailed 43-33, and James would sit for the rest of the quarter. Irving scored 12 of his team's final 14 points in the half to keep the margin at 10 heading into halftime.
While the crowd seemingly got louder after every Irving bucket, one superstar spectator wasn't surprised.
"Same thing I've been saying since I got here," James said. "He's a special kid. He's a special talent. As the stakes get higher and higher, his game gets higher and higher."
Even though James returned to the floor in the third quarter, Irving remained the hot hand. He shot 9-for-10 from the field for 21 points, nearly single-handedly outscoring Boston (23 points) by himself. That outburst helped Cleveland jump out to an 87-80 lead heading into the fourth, erasing any lingering stench from the 16-point deficit the Cavs faced earlier in the game.
Irving ultimately finished 15-of-22 on the night, including 4-of-7 from deep and 8-of-9 from the foul line.
"It's almost like a runner's high, where you get so juiced up and see a couple of shots going in that you feel the emotion kind of take over," Irving said. "Shots just start to fall in, and moves that you've practiced just become second nature."
Irving not only propelled the Cavs to a 3-1 series lead, but he also gave the franchise and its fanbase confidence that he can be a No. 1 option when necessary next round against a team that San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich called "maybe the best defensive team in the league."
While Irving was solid in the first three games of the series, having put up 21 points per game on 59.5 percent shooting, he wasn't his normally aggressive self. After averaging nearly 20 shot attempts per game in the regular season, he was only at 12.3 attempts per game in the Celtics series.
"We knew he wouldn't shoot the ball the way he shot it the first couple games," Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue said. "Kyrie scoring the basketball is not a big deal with us."
When Irving goes cold, it can sometimes be chalked up to a lack of aggressiveness. After Game 4, he admitted that's partly because he plays alongside James. When his superstar teammate picked up his fourth foul on Tuesday, the Duke product knew he had to take over.
"When you have a special player like 'Bron on your team, sometimes you can get caught watching and you allow him to be great," Irving said. "In the case of games when it's my job to be aggressive in all facets and keep us within the game and constantly stay in attack mode, we're quite a different team."
The performance did not come without a heart-stopping moment, though. During his hot stretch in the third quarter, Irving fell to floor after turning his left ankle on a layup. The arena fell eerily silent as Irving agonized in pain for several seconds while clutching his ankle. Luckily, Irving was able to stay in the game, and the ankle did not appear to be an issue for the remainder of the evening.
That's not to say Irving wasn't in pain. But given the stakes of the game, the Cavaliers point guard played through the injury.
"With a play like that, you have two choices—you can wallow in the sorrow of you actually twisting your ankle or capture the moment," Irving said. "My adrenaline is still going at this point. I'm pretty sure when I get home, my body will probably hate me."
Tuesday wasn't the first time the Cavs needed Irving to bail them out. After all, he hit the game-winning shot in Game 7 of last year's NBA Finals. Even though this is still James' team, performances like his Game 4 eruption allude to an eventual changing of the guard, which Irving acknowledged afterward.
"It hasn't been anything short of difficult to figure out when it will be my time," Irving said. "... With this team, nothing is promised. Who knows what will happen down the line?"
For the Celtics, the loss seems like a missed opportunity. With a 10-point lead and James on the bench with four fouls, Boston had chance to even up the series. But even without James, the Celtics still had their hands full with Irving, which was no surprise to head coach Brad Stevens.
"They still have two All-Stars on the court," Stevens told reporters afterward. "With the best player in the world, they go to unreal, but they're still a pretty darn good team when those guys are our there."
For much of Irving's electric third-quarter run, Avery Bradley was hounding him. While Bradley is perhaps the team's best on-ball defender and one of the best in the NBA, guarding Irving is a different animal.
"It's not just going to be one guy that's going to stop him," Bradley said. "It's going to take an entire team. Tonight, I feel like our team defense wasn't good on a consistent basis."
The Cavaliers now have three chances to close out the series and will enter Boston with far less pressure on them. If Irving and Co. can win Thursday, they'll have a week off until the NBA Finals.
The pessimistic view is that at home against a Celtics team playing without its best player, the Cavaliers needed one of Irving's greatest-ever performances to avoid another loss. Going forward, the team will need Irving to continue to play at a high level.
If that means more big scoring nights, the All-Star floor general is ready.
"The only thing that matters in the playoffs is winning," Irving said. "That's all I care about. I'm going to go out shooting all my bullets."