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Kyrie Irving scores a career-high 26 points to lead Cavs to victory over the Suns

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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.

James Harden makes impressive chase-down block. Really. (video)

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If we’re going to post all of James Harden‘s defensive lowlights, it’s only fair to acknowledge this impressive block.

Please overlook the fact that Jason Terry is 39 years old.

Steven Adams posterizes Rudy Gobert AND Derrick Favors with one thunderous dunk (video)

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Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors form an impressive defensive tandem that usually walls off the paint.

If there were any walls here, Steven Adams jumped right over them.

Video Breakdown: How Kyle Lowry dismantles NBA defenses from 3-point range

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Toronto Raptors star Kyle Lowry is arguably the team’s best player thanks in large part to his increase in 3-point shooting ability this season. He’s just above 43 percent from deep this year, much better than his career average of 36 percent. Lowry has increased his 3-point percentage six points over last season, and he’s a big part of why the Raptors are so good on offense, and why they’re a contender in the Eastern Conference.

So how does he do it?

Watch the full video breakdown on Lowry’s 3-point shooting above, or read the text version of the article below.

Early Offense

I looked at a lot of tape of Lowry over the last 3 years and he hasn’t changed much on his shot mechanics. There’s no big change in his sweep or sway toward the basket when he shoots, and he still brings the ball up from his left side.

Part of his leap is be how quickly he’s getting his shots off and how many of his early offense field goal attempts come in the form of 3-pointers.

Lowry has bumped up how many 3-pointers he’s taken in the early offense, recorded here as between 24 and 15 seconds on the shot clock. Year-over-year he’s taken nearly eight percent more of his field goals as three pointers in this range.

This takes form on the court in a couple of ways, both in transition on the fast break and on quick 1 or 2 dribble pull ups off the pick-and-roll.

Transition

With the ball in secondary transition here, Lowry gets a quick screen from DeMarre Carroll to open him up for a 3-point bucket against the Hornets. And that’s still with 18 seconds left on the shot clock!

Pull-up and off-the-bounce jumpers

The other way Lowry scores quickly is off the dribble, with quick pick and rolls. Toronto is great at screen assists — picks leading to an immediate field goal — and have three players in the Top 50 and two in the Top 10 in setting them.

Here, the Celtics defender cuts off Lowry’s attack to the middle of the floor. The screener sets up to Lowry’s right, but then quickly flips it to his left. One dribble, and it’s an easy 3-pointer.

Here against Portland, the Raptors run a two screen setup with one wing and one post. The Blazers make the switch and try to blitz Lowry, but he stays resilient and sinks the bucket with what little space they allow him anyway.

Working with DeMar DeRozan

The other thing that’s been talked about a lot is the gravity of DeMar DeRozan, who himself is having a career year for the Raptors. While Lowry is making a ton of unassisted 3-pointers this year, the Raptors point guard does benefit from DeMar.

Part of that is how good they are in transition together.

Here you can see DeMar bringing the ball up the court with Lowry in front of him. He sets the screen, then fades to the arc. Three Utah Jazz are trying to stop DeRozan, and Lowry is left all alone.

When he’s not the primary ball handler on the break, Lowry will immediately get out to the wing. DeRozan has a way of finding him to get up quick Js.

Of course, in good old set plays the Raptors see this gravity effect as well.

Here Toronto is running another double screen with a guard and a post, but Lowry is one of the screeners. At this point, all three Heat players are guarding against DeRozan’s midrange jumper, leaving just enough daylight for Lowry.

Toronto is also third in the NBA in “hockey” or secondary assists, which means two or more passes leading to a made field goal.

On this baseline out of bounds play, again it’s DeRozan’s gravity that frees up Lowry. As the ball is inbounded, DeRozan sucks three warriors defenders with him, including Lowry’s. Meanwhile, Kyle is running down the baseline to get a bucket off a pass on the opposite side of the floor. All the raps have to do is rotate the ball.

So that’s a little bit on why Kyle Lowry has been so good. It’s been about shot selection, decisiveness, and some practice in addition to the effectiveness of his teammates.

It’s official: Steve Kerr will coach West in All-Star Game

OAKLAND, CA - JANUARY 16:  Head coach Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors stands on the side of the court during their game against the Cleveland Cavaliers at ORACLE Arena on January 16, 2017 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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Steve Kerr likes a good meal, and while he might like some time off more he can at least find good food in New Orleans.

Kerr will be heading there mid-February to coach the West in the All-Star Game (Feb. 19 on TNT). That because official Monday night when the Rockets lost — the Warriors will have the best record in the West of Feb. 5 (the cutoff date). Kerr coached the All-Star Game two years ago, but not last season because of an NBA rule saying the same coach can’t do it in consecutive years (it fell to Gregg Popovich).

This is the same Steve Kerr that over the weekend called the way the players’ treated their All-Star votes was a “mockery.” He was right. Enough players took it seriously that the final selections were very good (the players had Russell Westbrook and James Harden ahead of Stephen Curry, for example), but players cast votes for 283 different players. To be All-Star starters. The 10 best players in the game. There were a lot of joke votes in there, such as the ones for Ben Simmons (who has yet to step on a court this season). There was a vote for Mo Williams. You get the idea.

Kerr likely will be matching wits — if you can call rolling the ball out there for the All-Star game that — with Dwane Casey of the Raptors. Tyronn Lue of the Cavaliers coached last year, so he gets a weekend off. Toronto is currently second in the East and have been there most of the season, although Boston is just 1.5 games back and Atlanta 2.5 back. It’s possible by Super Bowl Sunday that order changes and another coach gets to go have gumbo in New Orleans.