This was supposed to be the soft part of the schedule for Phoenix. Kyrie Irving made sure that it wasn’t.
The number one overall pick in the NBA draft showed why he was taken there, scoring a career-best 26 points and keying a second-quarter run that erased the Suns’ six-point lead, and put the Cavaliers ahead for good on the way to a 101-90 victory at the US Airways Center in Phoenix on Thursday.
Irving started slowly, with just four points in seven first-quarter minutes. But he absolutely took this game over in the second quarter, scoring 12 straight points once he checked back in to turn a six-point deficit into a six-point lead that the Cavs would never relinquish.
“I was basically just feeding off my teammates,” Irving said, being much too humble considering his performance during that stretch. “They were going under the screen, I was just taking what the defense gave me and being aggressive. My teammates had the confidence in me to keep on feeding me the ball and telling me to keep going, so that’s what I did.”
As the Suns went under the screens time and again, Irving made them pay. Only the last basket of his personal run came in the paint; the rest were all jumpers, including two three-pointers. Irving talked about how teams are respecting his drive more, which has led to his being more open for the outside shot. But most importantly, he seemed to realize from the bench that he needed to be the one to provide the spark to turn the game in his team’s favor once he re-entered the game.
“I felt that it was just a time to be a lot more aggressive,” Irving said of his second-quarter offensive explosion. “First quarter is where you feel out what the defense is, second quarter I told myself when I went back in I was just going to be aggressive — for my teammates first, and then myself. It happened to be when I was making a few shots, we got the lead and we never looked back.”
Steve Nash had a typically strong game numbers-wise, finishing with 16 points and 15 assists. But there was only so much he could do as his team was killed on the glass, giving up 15 offensive rebounds that resulted in 20 second chance points. Irving talked about how it felt to go up against one of the league’s best at his position.
“It was definitely fun, playing against a great point guard such as Steve Nash,” he said. “I’ve been watching him for so long, now that I’m finally playing against him, it’s a little surreal. But once you’re out there, you’re in the game. I’m a competitor as well as he is. He’s still doing the things he’s done through his whole entire career — 16 points, 15 assists — it’s impressive. It was an honor playing against him.”
On this night, Irving was even more impressive. He finished 11-of-17 from the field, added six assists, and single-handedly made the plays necessary to turn the game around. From there, Anderson Varejao grabbed a season-high 17 rebounds, the Cavs played some excellent defense (especially against the Suns’ second unit) and forced Phoenix into plenty of bad possessions. Cleveland held the Suns to just 60 points over the game’s final three quarters.
One bright spot for Phoenix was the play of Michael Redd, who made his Suns debut to the tune of 12 points in just over 19 minutes. Redd drained his first two shots, both of which were wide open threes from the corner that he didn’t hesitate for a second to knock down. Redd said afterward he felt great, and that his wind was better than expected. He just needs to continue to acclimate himself to what the Suns are trying to do offensively, and he should be a strong contributor for the team as the season progresses.
Thursday, however, belonged to Kyrie Irving. Phoenix had won three straight at home fairly easily, and hoped to get above .500 with back-to-back home games against Cleveland and New Jersey before heading out on a brutal five-game road trip against some of the league’s elite teams.
Irving’s second quarter changed all that.