OAKLAND, Calif. — Maybe Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving should just skip the first two games of any future Finals.
Two years ago, Irving suffered a fractured kneecap in Game 1. The Cavs lost the title to the Warriors. Last year, in Games 1 and 2 of the Finals, Irving shot .333 (12-of-36) and averaged 18 points. But in the last five games, he shot .508 (60-of-118), averaged 29.6 points, including a game of 41. The Cavs became champs.
There is a similar pattern this year. Entering Monday’s Game 5, Irving is riding two standout efforts: 78 points and 31-of-56 shooting (.554). Those games came after he was a blight on the Cavs’ souls, scoring 43 points but shooting .400 (18-of-45) and being outplayed from end to end.
Guess he’s just a big moment guy.
“It’s a time to definitely show everything that you’re made of in those moments,” Irving said of his rise-to-the-occasion games, especially when the Cavs have faced elimination. “You never want to be in those moments of elimination games, but when you are, you want to be as prepared as possible. And regardless of any situation, I always feel like if I do a great job of giving confidence in my teammates and remaining calm in the situation, then we have a great chance of coming out on the successful side.”
Like in Game 4. Most of humanity, except for the Cavs and selected patrons of mental wards nationwide, figured the Warriors would close out the Cavs. Oops.
The Cavs put on an offensive explosion, including 40 points by Irving who nailed seven of the team’s Finals record 24 3-point shots.
“I definitely failed a few times. But it definitely doesn’t affect me going in, nor does it affect the mindset of going in and just leaving it all out there on the floor,” Irving said. “There’s no other option. So you bring out everything that you have in your arsenal and everything that you work hard for and then leave it all out there on the floor.”
And the Cavs are hoping — while the Warriors are expecting — Irving has the same sort of force.
“We love how aggressive Kyrie’s been, and it’s been great for our team, obviously, with his individual ability to make shots and to take big shots and to knock them down,” LeBron James said. “We have to get him looks when he’s got it going. … So we hopefully can continue that.”
All this puts a huge burden on Klay Thompson, not only one of the Warriors’ pure shooters, but one of the best defenders.
“You can’t get deflated when they make shots, especially tough ones. You have to make it tough, make them work for it,” Thompson said. “My mindset guarding a guy like Kyrie is make him earn every bucket he gets. Don’t give him any easy ones. Easy ones get a great scorer going. He got a few good looks in Game 4 and when he makes a few easy looks that’s when he [starts] making those tough shots beyond the 3-point line and those runners. So you just have to adjust to that and try to make it tough on him for 48 minutes.”
Which makes it tough on defender.
“It doesn’t really seem like he has a weakness,” Thompson said.
Especially in the biggest games.