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Irving no longer leading, but en route to winning

POSTED: Nov 1, 2014 2:04 AM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner

NBA.com

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Kyrie Irving might not be the Cavs' top dog anymore, but he's fine with that ... and winning.

— The basketball was out of Kyrie Irving's hands for an unusually long stretch of the Cleveland Cavaliers' game against the Chicago Bulls Friday night at United Center. Good thing, too, since Irving was planted on the visitors' bench, yanked with four fouls at 9:32 of the third quarter -- things otherwise might have ground to a rather irritating halt.

Cavs beat Bulls in Chicago

LeBron James scores 36 points, Kyrie Irving adds 23 as the Cavaliers top the Bulls in overtime 114-108.

How much the ball is in or out of Irving's hands, however, when he's on the court, sharing responsibility for the Cleveland offense with LeBron James, Kevin Love and any two other guys, remains an open question as the new-look Cavaliers rev up for 2014-15.

There were times in Cleveland's 114-108 Halloween overtime victory when Irving was a lesser option and essentially forgotten, James bringing the ball into the front court to initiate a play or attack the rim himself. Halfway through, Irving had taken seven shots but had passed for only one assist, the Cavs' points generated mostly by James and by heavy lifting on the offensive boards by Tristan Thompson.

The ball found Irving late in regulation. It was his slo-mo continuation play through Chicago's Taj Gibson that lifted Cleveland into a 98-98 tie and forced the extra five minutes. But then it was back to James, the guy unleashed on the Bulls defense on the Cavs' first four possession in OT. On the fifth, Irving missed two shots and his team lost the ball in a shot-clock violation.

So two games in, it's clear -- and perfectly understandable, given James' impact on his teams' point guards -- that Irving's role has changed.

It was pretty apparent after the first victory of this new crew that his maturity level has changed right along with it.

"I had a talk with 'Bron," Irving said late Friday, "and I just told him, 'This is our time.' Me and him, when he was in Miami and I was in Cleveland, we both were asked to make plays at the end of the game. Now it's great to have another guy on the wing that, as I said, is gonna make plays when it's his time.

"When it's his time, I'm gonna be ready to shoot. And when it's my time to be aggressive and go and make plays, he'll be ready to shoot. As well as everybody on the floor. For us, I'm just happy we have another guy like that."

Kyrie's wizardry

Kyrie Irving blazes into traffic and somehow converts the layup after taking strong contact.

In this variation of what Miami put together over the past four NBA seasons, Cleveland is considered an ensemble attack in which many of its players' role must be tweaked. Stars deferring to stars, shooters passing the ball to more-open shooters, it gets painted in broad strokes as the many sacrificing for the whole.

Still, point guards -- at least those who aren't locked into Phil Jackson's triangle offense -- typically have more intimate relationships with the ball and with their coaches. Turning any of them -- Chris Paul, John Wall, Damian Lillard, Derrick Rose, Irving -- into a spot-up shooter or, worse, a decoy might be taken as a threat to his very basketball identity.

Cavaliers coach David Blatt admitted as much, both in playing for him and playing alongside the four-time NBA MVP.

"They really have to adjust to some things, in terms of how the game should be played. That comes through communication, through experience, sometimes through trial and tribulation," Blatt said. "Because [James] himself is such a great creator and acts as another point guard on the floor, those guys need to learn to play off of him as well. And to play without the ball. And that is part of the process."

In the rattled atmosphere Thursday night, following Cleveland's embarrassing loss to New York in James' big homecoming game, Irving talked about a little communication gap between himself and Blatt, as far as understanding each other's buttons and green lights. Essentially, it was a plea from the point guard to let Irving be Irving more often on the floor.

Said Blatt: "As you get involved in the games, particularly when you're a new team and you have a new coach and a new relationship with the players, like a point guard, I think that's fair. But that's coming from a good place and I see it in a good way."

So will Irving have more freedom soon, a chance to play more like he had as the Cavaliers' pre-LeBron designated future star?

"To a certain extent, yes. And again, with the game at full speed and things happening, he needs to have that," Blatt said. "And there's times when ... I see things that he really has to follow and know how to pass onto his teammates. I really think that's a natural part of the process."

The assumption with Irving -- the No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft, a half-season wonder in his lone, injured year at Duke and a high school phenom before that -- is that he always has been the "alpha dog" of his teams. Now all of a sudden, he gets to eat second or third behind James and sometimes Love. That's the pecking-order stuff Miami's Chris Bosh spoke about recently, accommodating a talent as large as James'.

Irving initially quibbled with the terminology -- to him, an "alpha dog" is a team's most forceful personality, not necessarily its best player, and he felt he rarely had been that. As for moving down in the pecking order, the fourth-year guard sounded remarkably OK with it.

"I had a scoring mentality, based on the personnel that I've had. That's just the reality of it," Irving said of the Cavs' bare-cupboard years. "But [for this season], I think the best thing possible was playing for [Team] USA. I don't feel any pressure playing with other great players. It's fine. You can honestly just play the game. You don't have to worry about anything else."

Several NBA head coaches have said that Irving, more than Love, Thompson or any other Cleveland player, would face the biggest adjustment to James' presence. Were they wrong?

"Being the 'scorer,' I think that's what they meant," he told NBA.com. "But every team had their plan for, 'If we stop him, we basically have a great chance of beating the Cavaliers.' Now it's not hard [for me]. It's not hard at all."

The other point guard Friday, Chicago's Derrick Rose, has more help around him this season too. But they're still Rose-centric (his absence down the stretch with a sprained left ankle didn't help the overtime effort). The Bulls' added depth was designed to complement Rose's game (and vice-versa) rather than alter his role.

The Cavaliers, by comparison, just grabbed as much talent as they could and figured Irving and the rest would sort it out.

That's right where they're at after their first two games, and Irving doesn't sound threatened one bit. It might seem easy to say, with that FIBA World Cup MVP trophy at home and a five-year, max-salary contract in his pocket that starts next season. But those types of things can fuel entitlement, too, even for a guy whose teams went 78-152 in his first three NBA seasons.

"I'm just thankful we've got some really good players on this team who make big-time plays," he said. "I'm grateful that we have some great players who know how to win in pressure situations."