With the clock ticking and Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals knotted at 89-89, J.R. Smith set the fateful screen on Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry switched out onto Kyrie Irving. The four men probably had no idea that they had just begun one of the most memorable plays in NBA history.
What happened next—Irving’s hitting what may have been the biggest shot in Cleveland’s basketball history—is something that will be overlooked for many years to come.
Sure, LeBron James had scratched, clawed and dragged the Cleveland Cavaliers to the point where they were a single made shot away from pulling off one of the most improbable upsets in quite some time, but he needed someone to step up and help him finish the job.
When he needed him most, Kyrie Irving showed up for LeBron James, and what should give fans of the Cavaliers and James himself pleasant thoughts is the fact that the 24-year-old Irving still has a lot to learn about playing the position of point guard at the highest level. And as we watch Team USA bruise and batter some of the lesser caliber opponents they will encounter on their way to a medal at the Olympics in Rio, Kyrie Irving is the player I’m most interested in watching.
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I have long held Jason Kidd out as being one of the top point guards in history and the best one I’ve ever seen play with my own eyes. What made Kidd special was that he seemingly had a unique ability to see the future on the basketball court. During his finest years as a member of the New Jersey Nets, Kidd had an ability to know which one of his running mates—Kerry Kittles, Keith Van Horn or Kenyon Martin—needed a shot. Kidd knew the temperament of his teammates and knew that he and Byron Scott had built a culture based on ball movement and shot sharing and, as a result, Kidd would act on the court with the intention of getting a particular guy a shot at a particular moment.
If Kidd knew that Kenyon Martin—a ferocious finisher and a poor man’s Amar’e Stoudemire in his prime—needed a shot, he would grab a rebound, do an about face and race up the court as quickly as he could to either find Martin for an alley-oop or find him trailing. Martin flourished in the open floor and in open space and Kidd not only knew that, he knew how to manipulate the game and his opponents to fall into the trap he set for Martin’s benefit.
Kidd knew the tendencies of Kerry Kittles and knew that Kittles was most effective as a spot shooter, so if Kidd found himself being guarded by a smaller player, he would post his defender, force a double-team and then flawlessly execute a skip pass and find Kittles for a wide-open look.
Kidd was a point guard genius, and the only other player that I’ve ever seen come close to his mastery of the game on the court is Chris Paul. In terms of game and situation management, Russell Westbrook and John Wall have made major strides toward seeing and playing the game within the game.
Kyrie Irving? He isn’t even in the same stratosphere.
And that, when you think about it, is a scary, scary proposition.
For all that he is on the basketball court, Kyrie Irving isn’t a floor general. But now, as Team USA takes their talents to Rio de Janeiro in search of the country’s third consecutive gold medal since falling short in Athens in 2004, Irving will face a challenge unlike one he’s encountered before.
Since being drafted with the first overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, Irving was essentially given the freedom to do as he pleased on the basketball court with minimal accountability. Under both Byron Scott and Mike Brown, Irving was seen as the golden child with whom the Cavaliers had to figure things out. If and when there were players or situations that couldn’t mix with Irving, the decision was easy. Before recently, Irving had failed to have been challenged the way that Erik Spoelstra challenged LeBron James and he certainly hasn’t been challenged to curb his game or his gifts for the benefit of any of the teammates that he had prior to James returning to Cleveland.
Now, with Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, John Wall, Stephen Curry, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade sitting out these Olympics, Irving, perhaps for the first time in his career, will be surrounded by similarly capable players for whom he must not only play with, but play for.
It’s a new situation for him and, in the long run, he will probably be better for it.
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What’s most interesting about Team USA is that, after seeing the rise of “small ball” and three-point shooting dominate the NBA over the past few years, the team will carry two true centers to Brazil—DeAndre Jordan and DeMarcus Cousins. One could make the argument that Cousins and Draymond Green, two front court players, are the best play makers on the team. Paul George ranks up there, as well, but neither of these three are likely to have the ball in their hands more than the likes of the team’s primary perimeter ball handlers. Of them, Irving is best equipped to handle the lead guard responsibilities. He can get break defenders down off the dribble, get to the basket, finish in traffic and connect on midrange shots. The biggest adjustment for him, however, will be to marry his skill set and his strengths with the ability to find the likes of Paul George, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and Klay Thompson for easy and efficient scoring opportunities.
On July 30, Team USA defeated Venezuela in their penultimate exhibition match before beginning Olympic competition and the results weren’t pretty. The Americans walked away with an 80-45 victory but shot just 28-for-66 from the field. In NBA competition, that wouldn’t necessarily represent an horrendous shooting night, but in Olympic competition and especially against an inferior Venezuelan team, that won’t get it done.
A dependable on-ball playmaker is something that is missing from the 2016 Olympic team, and just as it was when LeBron James needed him then, it’s on Kyrie Irving now.
To most, it’s a foregone conclusion that the Americans will walk away from Rio with a gold medal, but in order for them to do so—in order for them to outlast France, Seriba, Lithuania, Argentina and Spain—they’re going to need to find something that doesn’t appear to be in abundance on their roster.
So between the blowouts and the less-than-stellar competition, keep an eye on Irving and whether and to what extent he handles the playmaking and play calling duties for Team USA and head coach Mike Krzyzewski. It’s a game within the game, and if Irving uses this platform and talents he has around him to develop into a cerebral floor general, it may pay major dividends in the near future.
Already one of the most gifted players in the league, there is still so much further Irving can go. And as the Americans board their flight to head to Brazil, he too may be readying ascent to the next level.
The mere thought should send shudders across the entire league.
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