On May 23rd, Kyrie Irving’s delightful basketball art was once again on full display. The 25-year-old Cavs guard saw an opportunity when reigning GOAT-candidate and teammate, LeBron James, sat midway through the second quarter with his fourth foul and to paraphrase Steve Winwood, he saw a chance and took it.
His final line: 15-22 from the field, 4-7 from three, 8-9 from the free-throw line, a career playoff-high 42 points with 81% true shooting, and the type of third quarter performance that makes you want to support the National Endowment for the Kyries to cultivate this type of genius in all fields of expression. It was the kind of joy and declaration that simultaneously uplifts the audience to new levels of consciousness and reduces us to slack-jawed holy incantations in the same breath.
Take the third quarter which the Cavs went into with a ten-point deficit. Kyrie scored 21 points on ten shots. There was the buzzer beater three that dotted Terry Rozier’s eye. There was the scary rolled ankle that made guts bubble up and cringes rise in basketball fans across the globe. But, there was Kyrie nearly outscoring Boston for the entire quarter (he lost 23-21) with a series of improvisational acrobatic slaloms into the clutches of a green-hued opponent. I say improvisational because there’s so much reading and reacting, but there’s a choreographic element to Irving’s slicing drives almost as if it’s all premeditated. And there he was exploiting mismatches like Tyler Zeller and Kelly Olynyk (very poor souls, how I relate! How I empathize!) for layups. But these Kyrie layups aren’t your dad’s layups. It’s not Earl Monroe or Tiny Archibald or Rod Strickland, Isiah Thomas, Tim Hardaway, Steve Nash or anyone else. They’re elegant, funambulist, time-stopping. It’s beauty. For Kyrie, when it’s cooking like it was on this Tuesday night in May, it feels magnetic. You could cover the man’s eyes with a thick black cloak of midnight and he could sniff out the basket with the right amount of English and some preternatural understanding of geometry.
The crescendo really began at the 4:48 mark in the third when Cleveland was down 69-66. JR Smith found Kyrie in transition for a contested layup against Avery Bradley to pull the Cavs within one point at 69-68.
On the next possession, Kyrie was isolated above the corner against Olynyk, of Kelly Oubre-infamy, who he tortured with jab step threats before calmly sinking three. Score: 72-72, Kyrie at 25.
A minute later he caught Zeller on a pick-and-roll switch going downhill for a layup. Score: Cavs, 75-72, Kyrie at 27.
Less than a minute later, he caught a transition pass from LeBron and easily laid it in. Cavs, 77-72, Kyrie at 29. That’s four straight makes.
Off the ball moments later, he caught Rozier napping for slightest of moments, got just a hair behind him and used his underrated size advantage for a backdoor lob-into-a-layup. 79-74, 31 for Kyrie and five straight makes in about three minutes.
As if to prove he can do more than score in transition or against slow-footed sacrificial lambs, he then found himself on the right wing (his preferred area of operation – he took just one shot from the left side all night) against badass Bradley. Again, with the same fake jabs he used on Olynyk in the corner, he feints baseline and Bradley shifts his stance. In these split seconds of shifting and countering the counters, Kyrie gets over the defender’s top foot, has him beat, and careens downhill where Zeller awaits. Kyrie anticipates, adjusts, re-balances, makes the shot and draws the foul. Cavs, 82-76, Kyrie up to 34 and six straight.
Isolated again on the right wing, this time against the game, but overmatched Rozier, Irving does the exact same thing he just did to Avery: fake right, catch the defender off-guard because the defense must respect the dribble drive and in this case, Rozier nearly trips over his own feet, go left to the center. This time it’s Al Horford waiting and Kyrie casually leaps, brings the ball down and scoops it from a lower angle over Horford’s outstretched hand. And does it all at top speed with grace. Cavs, 84-78, 36 for Kyrie and he’s now hit seven straight.
Finally, the icing on the cake. The cherry on top. The gravy on the mashed potatoes. Whatever you want to call it, young Rozier was stuck all alone on Kyrie yet again with the quarter winding down. The previous slice and dice fresh in his mind, Rozier’s too reactionary on the balls of his feet jumping back nearly three to four feet when Kyrie fakes a dribble attack. At the same time Rozier backs up, Kyrie calmly, cool as you will, steps back creating a good six-plus feet between them. The shot is up, the shot is good and Cleveland goes into the fourth up 87-80 as the buzzer sounds.
Over the final four minutes and forty-eight seconds of the third period, Kyrie scored 19 points and hit eight straight shots.
And as I finish this, what I think I’ve realized is that Kyrie captured a moment, captured the crowd, and captivated us all. It reminds me of a section Jack Kerouac’s On the Road when his main characters Dean and Sal end up at a jazz club in San Francisco and end up under the spell of a tenorman who captured “IT.” As Dean explains it:
Now, man, that alto man last night had IT—he held it once he found it…. Up to him to put down what’s on everybody’s mind. He starts the first chorus, then lines up his ideas…. And then he rises to his fate and has to blow equal to it. All of a sudden in the middle of the chorus he gets it—everybody looks up and knows; they listen; he picks it up and carries. Time stops. He’s filling empty space with the substance of our lives…. He has to blow across bridges and come and do it with such infinite feeling soul-exploratory for the tune of the moment that everybody knows it’s not the tune that counts but IT
For all of basketball’s team-sport ethos, these moments of individual greatness can tilt thousands of people sitting in an arena towards palpable frenzy. You can imagine, or at least I can imagine, a crowd rising to riot levels in these moments. The rising giddiness, the euphoria, the open-ended question imploringly asked: how far can we go? How far will he take us? To which only Kyrie can answer. He owned the time and the moment. For that blissful stretch of the third, he had IT.