INDEPENDENCE, Ohio – The moment arose from one of Kyrie Irving’s dreams.
With the Cavaliers trailing by one and the clock fading to its final seconds, Irving took off toward the basket with the ball and game in his hands. As he drove and spun in the lane, his father, Drederick, sat just a few feet away inside Boston’s TD Garden, where rows of Celtics’ NBA championship banners dangled overhead.
After slipping past two defenders, Irving flipped in a left-handed layup with 2.6 seconds to play, giving Cleveland an improbable 88-87 win.
“It was just a shot,” Irving said Monday.
In truth, it was so much more.
On the same court where LeBron James played his final game for the Cavaliers, Irving had the defining moment of his promising career.
The kid who doesn’t act or play likes he’s 19, came of age.
“We’re blessed to have him,” said Cleveland coach Byron Scott, who never hesitated in drawing up Sunday’s final play for Irving. “There’s no doubt about it.”
And there’s no denying Irving’s immense talent and potential, which seem boundless.
One day after making the game-winning shot on a nearly identical play to one he missed a month ago at Indiana, Irving was taking all the extra attention in stride. Before speaking to reporters, he joked around on the practice court with Cavs general manager Chris Grant and Scott, with whom he has developed a close bond.
Irving’s basket, which capped a game-ending 12-0 run by the Cavs, was replayed dozens of times on local and national TV. It was the talk of Cleveland, where the 19-win Cavs of last season are being viewed in a positive light thanks to Irving.
After he stepped inside the media huddle, Irving was asked if his clutch shot had changed him.
“No,” he said. “Same old Kyrie. I just came in ready for practice. I got some work in and I’ll go home and get some rest and get ready for another grueling game against Boston.”
According to STATS LLC, Irving is the third youngest player to hit a game-winning shot in the final three seconds since 2002-03. And by comparison, James didn’t make his game-winner until 2006 — his third season.
While Irving made “a few” last-second game-winners in high school, a foot injury prevented him from showcasing his flair for drama last year at Duke. But although he’s felt the thrill of destroying an opponent’s hopes, nothing compared to dropping his shot on Boston’s famed parquet, one of basketball’s Meccas.
“It’s a dream come true for me, first time in Boston, playing against the Celtics. I’ve been watching them for so long and to hit a big shot like that feels good.
After his shot slithered through the net, Irving’s next move was to point at his dad, a former Boston University star who pointed back at his son.
“He was proud, a proud father,” Irving said. “He grew up watching the Celtics as well and seeing him sitting courtside, I know it was a good feeling, especially seeing me out there.”
Irving’s shot provided some redemption for a miss at Indiana on Dec. 30, when he weaved to the rim but couldn’t get a layup to drop at the buzzer and the Cavs eventually lost in overtime to the Pacers.
Scott wasn’t thinking about that shot when he called a timeout in the closing seconds to set up the final play against the Celtics.
He knew Irving should have the ball. He also knew Irving wanted it
It’s a look Scott has seen before in teammates like Magic Johnson and players he’s coached like Chris Paul and Jason Kidd.
“When the game is on the line, he wants the ball,” Scott said. “I’ve had a few and played with a few as well. I don’t know if it’s a mindset or whatever, their makeup or in their DNA, but you can tell when they want the ball. When the game is on the line, their eyes light up a little bit and they don’t mind being the goat, just like they don’t mind being the hero.”
Irving is fearless, a trait that served him well in AAU games back New Jersey and so far as a pro. To him, there was nothing special about the shot. It’s one he’s taken countless times before.
So he missed one in Indiana. Big deal.
To Irving, the next one is always going in.
“When you take shots like that, there is no pressure, unless you’re unprepared,” he said. “You practice shots like that, moves like that, all the time. It’s a game of percentages. You’re going to make some and miss some. If you miss one, you look back on it and say, ‘I’ll get the next one.’
You’ve just got to move on. You just have to have a fearlessness especially taking shots like that. As long as you have the confidence in your teammates, like my teammates do in me, I’m comfortable taking game-winning shots.
Although opposing coaches are quick to gush about Irving, Scott has been careful not to fill his point guard’s head with too much praise — that will come. Scott sees enough flaws in Irving’s game to know he’s an incomplete package and there’s room for growth.
Scott doesn’t miss a chance to remind Irving of his rookie status. His running joke is to tell Irving his breath smells like Similac, the baby formula
“That guy,” Irving said, smiling and shaking his head. “Coach Scott, he’s a jokester. … I don’t expect him to give me any more gratitude than I deserve. I love to play for him.”
Scott believes Irving’s a star, one rising quickly.
The shot in Boston was the first twinkling of brilliance.
It won’t be the last.
“I see him every day and I know there are a lot of things he still has to improve on at both ends, offensively and defensively,” Scott said. “But do I think that he has the potential of being a great player in this league and being an All-Star? Absolutely.”