After four years of waiting to get to the postseason, point guard Kyrie Irving was not healthy when the Cleveland Cavaliers qualified last season, and ultimately, tendonitis and a fractured knee cap brought to a premature end to his first playoff run.
Following intense rehabilitation, Irving returned to the postseason with a vengeance, as he led the top-seeded Cavaliers to four straight wins over the upstart Detroit Pistons by averaging 27.5 points, 2.3 rebounds and 4.8 assists while shooting 47.1 percent from both the field and three-point range.
“I knew that the preparation was for the postseason,” Irving said. “I knew that during the regular season, it was going to be peaks and valleys, and I really just had to come to grips with it. Playing at such a level as I did last year and then, going from playing 10 minutes to 12 minutes to 15 minutes, and game to game, just try to figure out how I best fit in with this team and what was going to be my specific role and what the leaders wanted from me and what they expected every, single night.
“They can attest to it. At times, I felt like I was really hard on myself, but I feel like that’s just the driving force that we all have. We all expect a lot from one another, and when we don’t get it, we’re pretty pissed off about it, and I think that’s what makes us great as a trio. We differ as personalities, but when we come together and we’re clicking on all cylinders, we’re looking at each other man to man, and this postseason is what we’ve been preparing for. There’s been a lot of peaks and valleys, but this postseason has been pretty good so far.”
Although Irving knew the preparation was for the postseason, he wanted to keep in rhythm after the Cavaliers locked up the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference in the second-to-last game of the year and play against the Pistons in the regular-season finale. However, he was held out of action and saved his game for the playoffs.
“It was a great series,” Irving said. “When you have guys like this and I’m calling out pick and rolls and they have to live with something. I’m coming downhill or getting in transition, I’m pushing the basketball and we play with an up-tempo pace, it just makes the game a lot easier for all of us. It starts with me as a point guard just continuing to get rebounds or steals or anything like that to just push the pace, push the pace, especially in the third quarter.
“That was really my emphasis coming out of halftime, was just getting these guys going offensively and defensively that we’ve got to get this going. We can’t have third quarters like we did in the regular season, so I think they just continued to follow. We just continued to follow one another and trusted the shot.”
Not only did Irving lead the Cavaliers in scoring, he came up with several clutch shots, including a three-pointer with 0.7 seconds left on the shot clock late in a Game 3 win, as well as a half-court triple and pull-up shot from long range in the second half of the closeout victory in Game 4.
“Before he got hurt in the playoffs last year, he was playing great, and to get hurt like that, I know he was disappointed and he was down,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said. “We just talked about him just taking advantage of the moment, taking advantage of the opportunity of being back in the playoffs and have a chance to do something special.”
Cavaliers small forward LeBron James added, “For our team, it doesn’t matter who is the leading scorer or anything. We just want to get wins, but the fact that he was in such a great groove throughout this whole series, we rode his coattails and we rode Kev (Love).
“I was able to focus on some other things, especially my rebounding, getting guys involved, and defensively, just trying to lock in on my individual matchup. I knew if I needed to score, I could have, but when you have a guy like this on my left and a guy like this to the right, even though he had an off shooting night, they just put pressure, maximum pressure on the defense from Game 1 to Game 4.”
And those who share the court with Irving on a daily basis expect him to continue raising his level of play for the Cavaliers as the postseason rolls on, starting with tonight’s matchup with the Atlanta Hawks in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals at Quicken Loans Arena.
“From the regular season he started off slow with the injury but he’s getting back to where he’s been playing his whole life,” shooting guard J.R. Smith said. “One thing about him -- everybody knows him for scoring, but he’s such a willing passer and makes plays for everybody else. He doesn’t get enough credit for that.”