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Kyrie Irving's 2016-17 mandate: Lead Cavs in scoring

Point guard scores 29 points as LeBron has triple-double

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

CLEVELAND — Kyrie Irving wasn’t even fully dressed when someone in the Cavaliers postgame locker room noticed a certain elevation to his wardrobe Tuesday night. Irving, stepping briefly from a scrum of media folks to toss a wet towel in a hamper, muttered almost to himself, “This is my sixth year in the league. I’d like to think there’d be some change in my style.”

Then he came back, locked in and explained that the great suit and sneaker he wore, with the knitted tie, was not entirely his own doing.

“I really just thank my sister [Asia], man. She’s my stylist,” Irving said. “And I think she wants to see an evolution, and I completely support her. I’d rather be paying her than anyone else to buy all my clothes.”

It’s not just Irving’s closet that’s due for an evolution. His game is, too, in a specific way that could speak volumes about where the Cavaliers are and where they are headed:

Irving needs to be Cleveland’s leading scorer in 2016-17.

He’s done it before, of course, leading the Cavaliers in each of his first three seasons in the NBA. Those teams were a combined 74 games under .500, the final three of four that LeBron James spent in Miami getting his “degree” in winning.

Irving was willing to continue on that path — best player on a bad team — as demonstrated by his willingness to sign a contract extension. But James came back to Cleveland in July 2014 and brought with him both victories and a new No. 2 status for Irving as his team’s scorer.

And so it went for the past two seasons, right through the 2016 Finals in June (James averaged 29.7 ppg, Irving 27.1). In Game 7, though, they each went for 41. And it was the point guard’s 3-pointer over Steph Curry that made the highlight reels (with James getting more acclaim for his run-down block of Andre Iguodala’s layup).

On that night in Oakland, the Cavaliers functioned best with Irving scoring, point for point, right along with James. And on Tuesday night in Cleveland, after an emotional ring ceremony and championship banner hoisting into the Quicken Loans Arena rafters, the Cavs functioned best with Irving actually outscoring his brawnier buddy.

The 24-year-old scored 19 of his game-high 29 points in the third quarter, shooting 8-of-10 as the Cavs ran away from the New York Knicks 117-88. Irving had made only four of his 12 shots in the first half and the new-look Knicks had stayed close. But he unleashed such an array of moves in the 12 minutes after halftime, attacking the rim, bombing from the arc, that he could sit down for the final 12.

James joined him soon enough after securing his first triple-double on opening night — 19 points, 11 rebounds, 14 assists – and the 43rd of his career in the regular season. It was a textbook James performance, doing a lot of everything to attend to his team’s many needs. But it was no more perfect to how he plays than Irving’s night was to his.

“Like I’ve always said since I’ve taken over, Kyrie is unstoppable,” coach Tyronn Lue said. “I don’t think one defender can guard him. In the pick-and-roll he’s unstoppable. He has no offensive weaknesses. So for this team to be successful, I need him to be a scorer. I need him to be in attack mode at all times. … You can see, when he scores, how the game just opens up.”

James has led his team in scoring all 13 seasons he’s been in the NBA. The results are hard to argue with – six consecutive trips to the Finals, seven overall, with championships in 2012, 2013 and 2016. Irving, whether he expected it or not, took a step back in scoring as well as impact when James came home, and both the point guard and the Cavaliers are better off for it.

But it’s impossible to watch Irving now and not see a player who still has upside, who flashes only a sliver of his offensive repertoire on any given night and who is capable now of elevating a team in ways he wasn’t in his first five seasons.

So if it means squeezing off 22 shots the way he did against New York, if it means turning Brandon Jennings inside-out with some variation of Kevin McHale’s old up-and-under move, if it means driving right into the trees of towering Kristaps Porzingis’ raised arms and spinning in a layup, so be it.

The Cavaliers need Irving to stay healthy (he has played more than 71 games only once) and they need him to score, as the surest way to shift some of James’ workload going forward.

James isn’t nipping at Kobe Bryant’s heels, as far as sunsets and free time, but he has logged serious playing time and he’ll turn 32 in December. It’s time, part of the natural order of things, for others to pitch in just a little bit more. Kevin Love, for example, pitched in inside, scoring 23 points with 12 rebounds while taking enough contact to earn 12 free throws.

Irving’s offensive game is as complete as any player in the NBA, even though he hasn’t been able to stoke it without conscience the way, say, James Harden does in Houston or how Russell Westbrook is expected to in Oklahoma City this season.

“I just play off my teammates, man,” Irving said. “I believe a lot in my abilities, a lot in what I can do. My teammates could probably tell you better than I can, but practice is very, very intense. We all show things that probably we don’t get a chance to do in the games. But I just try to prepare as much as I can and hopefully, my talent can take over in a game as well as my preparation. I just leave it at that.”

With Lue’s urging, Irving would seem to have a green light to look for his own shots. Given the talent around him, notably James and Love, it might be more of a green light with a tinge of yellow.

“You just try to find an incredible middle ground,” Irving said. “We have such incredible pieces on this team that there’s never one game where I go in and think, ‘I’ve got to score 30 points in order for us to win.’ I really just come in and think about ‘What can I do for my teammates for us to be successful at the end of the night?’ They feed off of me, I feed off of them.”

A passing of the Cavaliers’ scoring baton would seem to fit well on a night they all received their rings. It was a memorable, draining, exhilarating night for the players and their families to relive what they accomplished against Golden State in June.

But then, Irving has had those sorts of nights all of his young life. From the death of his mother Elizabeth when Irving was just 4 to the devastating knee injury he suffered in Game 1 of the 2015 Finals, thwarting the Cavs’ chances before the series really had begun. He had pledged his bejeweled championship ring to his father Drederick long ago, and he huddled with his father as the Cleveland banner was hoisted Tuesday.

“We just have a very unique relationship which goes deeper than, almost life itself,” Irving said. “It was just the culmination of a lot of emotions. As a kid, kind of watching him sacrifice as much as possible to allow me to have the freedom play basketball. But also understanding how basketball correlates to life and vice versa. And how he always related it back to me just being an even better man. It was just a total 180, thinking how far we both have come.”

Six years in, with several more than that to go, it’s not that Irving needs to outscore James on a regular basis. It’s just that he deserves it, as a way of plumbing his game’s potential and seeing where that might take them all.

“This is my sixth year in the league. I’ve been through, I would say, the ringer more than probably guys in their whole entire careers,” Irving said. “As far as being a 19-year-old kid trying to lead a franchise. To saying I wanted to be the best player in the league but not being ready for it. To just the journey itself – getting hurt in the Finals, coming back.

“I’ve been through a lot of things that have really put me in different places mentally. I’ve just tried to come out of it even stronger. Just show people what I can do and try to have confidence in myself.”

Irving is ready for MVP consideration even while playing alongside James. And fully engaged, he would represent another in James’ long line of victories.

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

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