2017 NBA Playoffs
2017 NBA Playoffs

Kyrie Irving rescues Cleveland Cavaliers with 42-point masterpiece

With LeBron in foul trouble, an aggressive Irving steps up with 21 points in third quarter

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner NBA.com

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May 24, 2017 3:04 AM ET

1:00

Getting back to The Finals is the primary focus for Kyrie Irving and the Cavs right now as they need just one more win.

CLEVELAND – Ben Franklin probably was lucky he didn’t zap himself with that kite-and-a-key stunt of his and so are we, because his reckless experiment led to the development of lightning rods. And without lightning rods, we’d have to scrounge for some other metaphor to describe those among us who attract and absorb our most powerful opinions. 

Like, y’know, LeBron James.

What often gets forgotten amid the sparks and the sizzle is that lightning rods don’t merely draw lightning – they essentially disarm it, carrying the heavy voltage away from other potential targets. And that’s where the imagery really fits James, who stands tall and absorbs it all while allowing his Cleveland Cavaliers teammates simply to do their jobs.

Every so often, that pays off and one of them does for him what he frequently does for them.

In this instance, it was Kyrie Irving again, seizing a necessary moment the way he did in Game 5 of the Finals last June (41 points) and particularly in Game 7, hitting a cold-blooded, sidestepping 3-pointer for what proved to be the championship winner. The Cavaliers’ point guard took over Game 4 against Boston on Tuesday in the third quarter, scoring 21 points in the period and 42 in the game to beat back any designs the Celtics had on evening things up.

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Cleveland looks to close things out in Boston on Thursday.

Irving took 10 shots and made nine in the pivotal quarter, leading the Cavaliers as they turned what was a 16-point deficit midway through the period into an 87-80 lead heading into the fourth. But it came with James as the focal point, James as the potential scapegoat and James, yes, as arguably the biggest lightning rod in sports.

Bad enough that the Cavaliers’ superstar, a.k.a., “not an MVP finalist this year,” had taken hits for nearly 48 hours by tipoff Tuesday night at Quicken Loans Arena. James’ uncharacteristically passive and unproductive (11 points on 4-of-13 shooting) performance in Sunday’s Game 3 loss – a stunner in which Cleveland at home blew a 21-point lead – even saw him heckled by a Cavs fan in an arena hallway afterward.

Now here comes Game 4, with James picking up personal fouls at a pace commonly seen by his defenders. One, two, three ... four? If his third one looked a little iffy, allegedly tagging Marcus Smart in the follow-through of a corner 3-pointer, his fourth was straight runaway truck, barreling over Terry Rozier on an offensive ramble.

Four fouls in the first half, four fouls in the game’s first 18 minutes. Yikes. James sat down with 10 points, his team trailing by 10 and an edgy feeling in the building, lest both horrible trends continued.

Never mind that James’ fifth infraction would have had to be classified a felony before it would be called a foul (he never did get it). The chance of the Cavaliers losing again at home, with James to kick around for a couple more days while Golden State sat contentedly out West watching Cleveland sweat seemed very real.

Irving had six points when James headed to the bench. A few possessions later, Boston led 49-33.

That’s when Irving went off. He scored 12 of Cleveland’s 14 points to close the half. It wasn’t as gaudy as what came after halftime but it cut the Celtics’ advantage back down to 10, and gave at least one of Irving’s teammates a glimpse of things to come.

“I saw some things in him then,” said Kevin Love, who chipped in 17 points, 17 rebounds and five assists on a Big Three night in The Land. “He keeps to himself out there a lot, but he really started talking then.”

The urgency at that point hung over the Cavaliers like their “Humongotron” scoreboard.

“The importance of a Game 4, especially the way we came out in Game 3, you know,” Irving said later. “In the back of my mind, I was like, I'm saying to myself ... they cannot tie up this series. They cannot. We cannot go to Boston 2-2.”

The Cavaliers will take a 3-1 lead into the TD Garden for Game 5 Thursday (8:30 ET, TNT), averting and potentially avoiding a Game 6 requiring extra days and exertions, because Irving stepped up after James sat down. He, Love and the rest of them never feel the full brunt of scrutiny that James rinses down the drain each morning, but that’s the beauty of the lightning rod – it renders the biggest bolts harmless, sparing the rest of the structure damage from the heat.

Had Irving not changed the game in the third quarter by asserting his game, most of the grumbles still would have been about James, his fouls and what they meant to the outcome. But the point guard did, and did.

Irving scored Cleveland’s first basket of the second half, then blended in as his guys crept closer. A play that seemed certain to propel the Cavs – J.R. Smith’s 3-pointer at 5:30 off James’ cross-court pass – got undercut when James blew a wide-open dunk at 4:15 after another one of Love’s deep Aaron Rodgers-like passes.

So it was time. Irving drained a 3-pointer in Kelly Olynyk’s face. A minute later, he drove for a layup. And soon after that, he got loose again but stepped on Terry Rozier’s foot. Irving crumped on the baseline, the folks at The Q enduring the “oh no, he’s hurt!” dread for about 15 seconds before he popped up.

There were more theatrics. After Irving attacked in traffic for a 3-point play, he walked straight toward the Cavs’ bench to yap and dap with reserve Iman Shumpert. And when he hit a 3-pointer over Rozier to end the quarter’s scoring, Irving wheeled and stomped almost to the other end of the floor, basking in the adulation and his hostile takeover of the contest.

In all, Irving scored the Cavs’ last 14 points of the period – it was Irving 14, Boston 8 to close – and 19 in the quarter’s final 4:48.

What did the 32-year-old James – who, incidentally, found his rhythm and his impact (15 points) in the fourth quarter – see in his 25-year-old sidekick on this night?

“Nothing,” James said, though he meant “nothing new.” “Same thing I've been saying since I got here. I've been saying he's a special kid. He's a special talent. As the stakes get higher and higher, his game gets higher and higher, but it was nothing surprising for me.”

There’s been talk before about Irving eventually taking over the team, grabbing the baton from James along with all the lessons. He had stepped into the void when James went to Miami, the No. 1 pick that came as payoff in the fall from 61 victories to 19. His first three seasons were rocky, Cleveland posting an average record of 26-56 until James came back home and tabbed Irving, so obviously talented, as one of the few who’d be kept around.

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Tyronn Lue, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving speak after the Cavs' Game 4 win.

“I mean, the kid is special, and he basically was just waiting for an opportunity to be able to blossom,” James said. “I'm just happy and blessed that when I decided to come back that I was able to help him blossom, I guess, because he gets to play in games that he's always been built for. He just never had the opportunity because of the team at that point in time.”

Irving went from an All-Star on a bad team (MVP of the 2014 game) to the second option on a championship contender. Biding his time before James is truly ready to flip him the keys hasn’t always been easy.

“It's hard not to think about because as I continue to get older and I'm playing with an unbelievable player like ’Bron,” he said late Tuesday. “It could be seen a few ways, and for me, it hasn't been anything short of difficult, trying to figure out when will it be my time.”

Obsessing about the future, though, is no more helpful than dwelling on the past.

“My job is to be in the moment, especially with an unbelievable player like him,” Irving said. “You have to just enjoy the ride. Individual goals, you have to just push to the side because this team, nothing is promised, and who knows what would happen down the line.”

The Cavaliers’ next moment stretches about three or four weeks in front of them now, in part because of the one Irving seized on Tuesday.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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