Kyrie Irving's Game-Winner and Moments of Perfection

What we witnessed was not only the best scoring performance of the year by any player, but a superstar coming into his own with a 55-point night including a game-winning three-pointer to give the Cavs a 99-94 win over the Blazers. (Find video of every Kyrie hoop by quarter further down.)

I know, I know that guy in the upper deck has been telling us Kyrie’s an “M – V – P” all year long, and if you were near the press area you might’ve heard me yell in time, “Doesn’t Play D.” Now Kyrie’s making him look like a prophet.

The extraordinary thing about last night isn’t just the 55 points, but the fact that it was part of Kyrie’s continued defensive emergence. He was just as good on the defensive end as the offensive end last night.

Here Kyrie gets a steal and draws a charge, a small sampling of his defensive prowess. Irving’s counterpart, Damian Lillard went 4-19 from the field with just 14 points, 8 points below his scoring average.

Since LeBron came back, Kyrie’s eaten up the competition outplaying some of the leagues finest– Chris Paul, Lillard, Eric Bledsoe, Derrick Rose, Kemba Walker, Russell Westbrook. He recognizes how important his defensive play is for the team’s success.

“Our defense is sparking our offense right now for us, that has got to become a habit and has to have consistency. We always preach it game to game, but now it’s definitely coming to fruition. It’s becoming a staple for our team,” Irving said after the game. “It’s just a total team effort, trusting them and sending guys to our bigs – we have a 7’2" guy back there and so it helps a lot.”

Over our last 9 games, opposing point guards have shot 39%. Right now he’s playing like one of the best two-way guards in the league. Who would you rather have: James/Irving or Klay Thompson/Stephen Curry? They keep playing like this and we might be revisiting that question in June.

It was an extraordinary win not only because of Kyrie’s outburst – which we’re going to get to – but because of the circumstances. The Trailblazers have had a few days off, waiting out the storm in New York City which resulted in a cancelled game against Brooklyn.

Meanwhile the Cavs are on a back-to-back, minus LeBron James who injured his wrist in Monday’s victory over the Pistons. (He’s likely out the next two against relative lightweights the Kings and 76ers.) In addition to that, Kevin Love is beaten up like a character out of Fight Club.

His bedraggled state seemed evident from his shooting. After scoring 10 points in the first, Love did not score again and missed his last 11 shots. In the second quarter he got poked in the eye. Then with three minutes left, Love banged knees with someone, perhaps Chris Kaman. He spent some time on his back, but got back up and came in.

The guy is getting by on spit and polish, and one wonders sometimes if he wouldn’t be better off getting his body right than playing in such a state that he’s hardly an offensive threat at all (3-15, including 2-8 from 3). He grabbed 12 rebounds, and the Cavs lack much depth up front, so the same option doesn’t exist for Love that did for LeBron, apparently even if he would be missed significantly less.

With hardly any help, Kyrie pretty much took over the game. His 55 points are the 4th most by any player in history when his team has scored less than 100 points. Hall of Famers MJ (56), LeBron (56) and George Mikan (62) have the others.

Perhaps even more extraordinary is that Irving missed his first 7 shots. He’d make 17 of the next 29, 11 of those from beyond the arc. He had half the team’s baskets and 10 of the 16 free throws. LaMarcus Aldridge, playing with a sprained ligament in his off hand, kept the Blazers in the game with 38 points, including 13-23 from the field, 2-3 from distance, 10 boards, 2 blocks and a steal.

The Cavs contested Aldridge pretty well, and by the second half were sending help anytime he got it on the block. As Coach David Blatt noted in the postgame, they were able to limit the Blazers scoring outside him. Only two other Blazers made it into double figures and Portland shot 39% outside Aldridge.

The Cavs led almost the entire way. Here are Kyrie’s hoops from the first quarter, all but one (a technical free throw) of his 12 points coming in the final 99 seconds of the quarter.

The Cavs led by 10 at the close of the first, 31-21. Despites a couple runs, the Cavs maintained the ten point lead at halftime, 54-44, while Kyrie added 16 in the quarter including four 3s.

Kyrie deferred for much of the third, only taking two shots in the quarter. (Blatt also did a masterful job of resting him for a couple minutes at a time each quarter.) Then with two minutes left, Kyrie started to take over again. It’s hilarious how Miller doesn’t even pause in passing it right back to Kyrie, like, “Shoot it bitch, you’re hot as hell!” Which he did and was.

In the fourth quarter Irving just willed the Cavaliers to victory. He scored 16 of the team’s 20 points in the quarter. Portland scored 20 as a team. The Blazers actually tied the game during Irving’s two minute rest in the middle of the quarter and took a 3-point lead just after Kyrie re-entered the game for Shumpert who had turned the ball over. (Blatt gave him a chance to run the offense with Delly out and it didn’t go well.)

After hitting a couple free throws to pull the Cavaliers within one, Aldridge answered with a jumper setting the stage for Irving’s game-tying and, a minute later, game-winning threes.

It was an extraordinary performance worthy of the King himself. One can’t help but feel watching Kyrie that he has indeed moved his game up yet another notch, and for my part, I’d take Kyrie the way he’s playing the last 8 games over Dwyane Wade because he’s as much a threat off the bounce as he is behind the line, and now he’s a tenacious defender as well.

There was no way to anticipate this extraordinary turnaround – though as Kyrie notes, the addition of the big, willing and agile Mozgov has made a huge difference, some of it no doubt psychological. Nothing like being in a scrap and looking behind you to see a Himalayan Alp backing you up. ‘

This is exactly what makes basketball such a great sport. Players step up their games – and you can’t always tell who the next Blake Griffin or Damian Lillard is going to be. Kyrie’s making a case that he belongs among the top ten players in the NBA. Period. LeBron needed an hombre to step up. Kyrie did giving us only our second win in ten outings this year without LeBron.

The Cavaliers have a relatively easy stretch coming up with only two of the next nine opponents posting a winning record. The team’s playing well, so hopefully that won’t slacken when the talent level drops. We’ve seen very little evidence of such inconsistency since LeBron’s return, but they may be playing a few without him.

Still, it is never easy. This is the NBA and there’s a lot of pride on that court every night. Tomorrow night brings the Sacramento Kings in for their only visit of the year with what I’d say is the best center in the game right now, DeMarcus Cousins. Mozgov and Thompson will have their hands full, and Darren Collison is a pretty good point guard, though we know what Kyrie’s done with them lately.

Saturday it’s on to Philadelphia for a back-to-back and we all remember what happened last time we went to Philadelphia (aka Dion Waiters final day in town).

I’ll be tweeting and posting live video from the game on Friday. Follow me on Twitter @CRS_1ne, and read my game analysis of each game on Saturday and Sunday in the Cleveland Scene blog.

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