Kyrie Irving has become Cleveland’s clutch sharpshooter in the NBA playoffs, the Cavaliers guard making his biggest mark in must-win games.
Irving will need all his skills Monday when the defending champions face Golden State in game five of the NBA Finals, the host Warriors up 3-1 in the best-of-seven showdown with a chance to reclaim the crown they lost to the Cavaliers last year.
“We love how aggressive Kyrie has been,” Cavaliers star LeBron James said Sunday. “It has been great for our team with his ability to take big shots and knock them down.”
Irving, who put the Cavaliers ahead to stay on a stunning 3-pointer in the final minute of game seven last year, scored 40 points Friday to lead Cleveland’s 137-116 home win over Golden State to extend the series, hitting seven of a finals-record 24 3-pointers for the Cavs.
“He has just been very special in closeout games,” James said. “He has always been built for the biggest moments and he showed that once again. It’s not surprising. He’s just that special.”
Irving, who hit a playoff career-high 42 points against Boston in the penultimate game of the Eastern Conference finals, says closeout games bring out ultimate efforts.
“It’s a time to definitely show everything that you’re made of in those moments,” Irving said. “You never want to be in elimination games, but when you are, you want to be as prepared as possible.
“Regardless of any situation, I feel like if I do a great job of giving confidence in my teammates and remaining calm, we have a great chance of coming out on the successful side.”
Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue can see the difference in Irving from start of the finals to now.
“Playing with more pace. Pushing the basketball. On misses or makes, he’s pushing it and trying to create an advantage there,” Lue said. “He’s attacking early. Not messing around with it too much. He’s one of the best one-on-one players in the game.”
Teammate Richard Jefferson has a much less technical evaluation of Irving’s big shot success.
“He embraces the moment,” Jefferson said. “At times he wants that moment so bad that he puts pressure on himself because he expects that much of himself. As a competitor, he wants to win. He’s not afraid of those moments. He looks forward to those moments.”
Warriors coach Steve Kerr was overflowing in admiration as well, despite being on the beaten end of those heroics.
“He was brilliant the last two games and we’ve got to do a better job on him,” Kerr said. “But there’s only so much you can do against certain guys. We’ll try our best to make things a little tougher on him, with full awareness that he may go for 40 again.”
Warriors guard Stephen Curry, who often defends Irving, says his drives to the hoop are as deadly as his 3-pointers.
“He has made a lot of contested shots. He has gotten to the basket a little too much for our liking,” Curry said.
“Just try to make him play in a crowd as much as possible. That’s the biggest thing. He’ll have some runs, but over the course of the game you just want to make it tough.”
Irving, 25, feels contact after nearly every shot now.
“There’s not one possession where I come down where I’m not getting hit or hitting somebody, and that’s just the physicality of the finals,” he said. “I relish that challenge of becoming better and demanding more out of myself.”
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