Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving has experienced both the highest high and the lowest low at Oracle Arena in his previous two NBA Finals series against Golden State.
Two years ago, the Duke product fractured his kneecap in his first Finals game and was forced to miss the rest of the series, which the Warriors won in six.
Last year, Irving scored 41 points with Cleveland facing elimination in Game 5, and then hit the tiebreaking 3 with 53 seconds left in Game 7 to give the Cavs their first-ever NBA title.
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So far in Cavs-Warriors Part III, Irving has shot a combined 18 of 45 in Oakland, with nine assists and seven turnovers, as Golden State took a 2-0 lead. The series shifts to Cleveland for Game 3 Wednesday night at 9 p.m.
“We ride or die with Kyrie,” Cavs power forward Kevin Love said. “I mean, Kyrie knows what he’s capable of in this building (Oracle), in the league, at our building. So I would imagine Kyrie’s going to come out and have a great Game 3.”
Irving’s resurgence will be critical as the Cavs attempt to knock off the Warriors, who haven’t lost in the postseason and are drawing comparisons to some of the greatest offenses of all time since adding Kevin Durant in the offseason. With Irving struggling in Game 2, not even a triple-double from LeBron James and 27 points from Love could stop the Warriors.
“Kyrie’s an assassin,” Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said. “Offensively he can score in a lot of different ways. We want him to be aggressive. The way this team plays defense with all their switching and things like that, we have to take advantage of matchups. They’re going to switch different guys on Kyrie, and he has to be great 1-on-1. I feel good about that he can do. So he has the green light to play offensively, be aggressive, making the right play.”
Besides his play on offense, Irving has also been tasked with defending All-Star guards Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. James was encouraging after Game 2.
“I just tell him to continue to be patient,” James said. “The game will come to you. Just keep asserting yourself. We have to figure out a way to get him going early. He’s been such a big piece of our success the last three years, obviously.”
Figuring out how to play with James – taking a supporting role at times, while still being aggressive and taking over when he needs to – has been an adjustment for Irving, who was the No. 1 overall pick in 2011 after one injury-plagued season at Duke.
“Finding that balance is one of the toughest things to do,” Irving said. “Because you have so much belief and confidence in yourself, but also one of the biggest things that makes a great player great is how selfless he is and how much is he willing to sacrifice in order to see the betterment of the team. Selfishly I always wanted to just show everyone in the whole entire world exactly who I was every single time… (but) I would rather be competing for a championship every single day.”
Irving seemed to have figured out how to excel individually and in partnership with James, who is appearing in his seventh straight NBA Finals. Irving came into the Warriors series on a tear – averaging almost 25.8 points on 62 percent shooting in the Eastern Conference Finals, including 42 points in Game 4 when James was saddled with foul trouble. He also averaged 25.3 points in the first round against Indiana and 22.3 points and 8.5 assists in the second round against Toronto.
Irving has success this year against the Warriors, hitting the game-winning fadeaway with 3.4 seconds left as the Cavs won 109-108 on Christmas Day. Irving finished that game with 25 points, 10 assists, seven steals and six rebounds – a sign of how productive he will need to be for the Cavs to have any success going forward.
“They took care of home court. We understand that,” Irving said. “Down 0-2, going back home, you have to live with those odds. We understand who we are and we stay the course.”