OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Whether it’s his lightning quick dribble, supreme confidence that doesn’t seem to waver or ability to score from almost anywhere on the court, Kyrie Irving seems to be at his best when things look the bleakest for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
LeBron James said his teammate is built for the drama of an NBA Finals elimination game, a trait the Golden State Warriors have learned all too well these past two years.
Whether it’s extending a season with a pair of 40-point performances or hitting the series-deciding 3-pointer in a Game 7 win last year, Irving’s already stellar game has risen to another level whenever the Cavs have faced elimination.
“It’s a time to definitely show everything that you’re made of in those moments,” Irving said Sunday on the eve of another elimination game with Cleveland trailing the Warriors 3-1 in the NBA Finals.
“You never want to be in those moments of elimination games, but when you are, you want to be as prepared as possible. And regardless of any situation, I always feel like if I do a great job of giving confidence in my teammates and remaining calm in the situation.”
Cleveland has won four straight Finals elimination games, rallying from a 3-1 series deficit to win the championship last year and then winning 137-116 in Game 4 on Friday night to extend this series.
Irving scored 40 points in the Game 5 win at Golden State last year, hit the tiebreaking 3-pointer in the final minute of Game 7 and scored 40 more on Friday, raising his average in those elimination games to 32.5 points per game. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, there have been only seven times a player scored at least 40 points to win when facing elimination in the Finals and Irving and James have each done it twice the past two years. Elgin Baylor did it twice in the 1960s and Wilt Chamberlain did it in 1970 for the Lakers.
“We love how aggressive Kyrie’s been, and it’s been great for our team, obviously, with his individual ability to make shots and to take big shots and to knock them down,” James said. “That’s been key for our team. And for the rest of us, we have to do everything else.”
Irving played just one game before injuring his knee in the first Finals meeting between these teams in 2015. He has been the barometer for Cleveland the past two years around the constant greatness from James.
Irving has scored nearly seven more points per game in Cavs wins than losses in the past two Finals with the biggest difference being his long-range shooting; he is shooting 27 percent in the six losses and 53 percent in the five wins.
That was especially evident in the Game 4 win when Irving hit seven of Cleveland’s record-setting 24 3-pointers.
“That’s a big difference,” Golden State guard Klay Thompson said. “When he’s getting 39 points off 2s, you can live with that. When he’s extending the floor and hitting those 3s, it opens the floor for everybody. We can’t let him do that again. We have to limit that number to two or three. Seven is too many.”
Thompson has spent most of the series chasing Irving around the court like a yellow lab who keeps chasing a ball, at least that’s how it looks at times to coach Steve Kerr. Thompson frustrated Irving early, holding him to 40 percent shooting the first two games.
But after getting moved off the ball at times, Irving played much better in the two games at home. He scored 38 points in the Game 3 loss before his big Game 4 performance.
“I think that in Game 1 and 2, as well as part of 3, just definitely got caught up in trying to find that rhythm with the basketball in my hands,” Irving said. “But as long as collectively as a group that everyone feels good, then my opportunities will come on breakdowns from their defense and offensively and things that we can be sharper at. I have to be implementing in those opportunities, and the way to do that is just being an open screener, being just a willing sacrificer, and the opportunities will come.
“And when those opportunities come, then you kill it.”