“Kyrie-stianity”: My Conversion Story
I couldn’t believe it. Lebron James was on the floor, knees bent in what seemed to be a position of prayer and gratefulness. His head to the floor, he was openly weeping. Weeping like Jordan so many years ago when he won the championship on Father’s Day. Weeping so much that he has now replaced the crying Jordan meme. Perhaps it was because I love the cyclical nature of the sport, or perhaps it was my recent viewing of ESPN’s “Believeland”, but this was an emotional experience watching the Cavaliers finally win a title. Lebron eventually hoisted the trophy above his head, and what also seemed to be a weight off of his shoulders. The narrative was already set by the television analysts, and James himself explained it in the interview after the game:
“When I came back, to bring a championship to this city, I gave everything that I have. I poured my heart, my blood, and my sweat, and my tears to this game, and (tears forming) against all odds (pauses)…I don’t know why we want to take the hardest road, and I don’t know why the man above gives me the hardest road, but …”
And with that, Lebron ushered in — Ha, remember Usher at the Finals?!- what appeared to be his messianic reign. He was the savior that Cleveland needed, taking the yoke upon himself, and sacrificing himself for his city and for his legacy. If you have any question about this, just remember “The Fall” he suffered near the end of the game. Truth be told, I thought he broke his hand at first, and I wondered, a la Willis Reed, if he was going to inspire his teammates one final time with his free throws to seal the victory. He succeeded on one of two, but weirdly he held both the MVP trophy and the NBA championship trophy with ease soon after. Now I’m not here to nitpick because I think he really did hurt himself, at least mildly, in that moment. However, Lebron is a myth-maker, he knows the power of story and how these legends are passed down throughout the years (the “Flu Game”, anyone?), and how brilliant would it be to create a scenario where you are the sacrificial lamb one last time. Whether false or not, it was in fact a great moment. We will all be talking about it for years to come.
And I experienced my own conversion that night, but it wasn’t to the church of Lebron. My devotion lies elsewhere now. No one can deny the power of “The Block” in Game 7, but what happened after that is what Warriors fan now realize to their own misery… “The Shot”. But it wasn’t Lebron who saved the game, the Cavaliers, Cleveland itself… it was Kyrie Irving. But we should have all prophesied this. What has been truly frustrating about the Cavaliers this season, and most pronounced in the Finals, is how stale their offensive sets are at particular moments. Most of the time the ball has flowed, understandably, through Lebron. The result of this often leads to his attempt at an isolation play, holding on to the ball looking for an open shooter, or passing it off after a drive at the goal. Most of the time this works rather well. However, there are times when watching the Cavs play offense is like watching click bait videos. You wait for something to happen, and most of the time the payoff is not worth the duration of the setup. Lebron is quite often a great playmaker, but the Cavs have moments where the offense is too directly centered around him. Teams know this. And while statistically Lebron averaged more assists than Kyrie Irving in the final series, there is dynamic to the offensive flow when Irving handles the ball that is at times absent when all is focused on Lebron. It is not necessarily quantifiable, but it is qualifiable. And it became more evident as the series progressed. Simply put, there were moments when the offense worked like a well-circulated body under the guidance of Irving. Near the end of games, as per routine, King James held on to the ball and it seemed as if the Cavalier’s blood was clotting. As I watched the series, and every time the Cavs fell into stagnation, I found myself repeating, “Just give the ball to Kyrie. Just give the ball to Kyrie. Just give the damn ball to Kyrie!”
I’ll be honest, as much of an NBA fan as I am, Irving has largely stayed off my radar screen. I’ve known that he’s good, I have loved watching his highlights and crossovers in the past, and I was aware of his basic stats. But he always seemed second-tier because of his tendency to mail it in on defense and what seemed to be a lack of passion overall. Again, this was my observation from afar, and I had no idea of his internal intentions, but the moment of my conversion began to creep midway through the series , and I was baptized by the time the buzzer sounded on Game 7. Lebron may be the god of Cleveland, but I am finding myself a disciple of Kyrie’s work. I’ll go so far as to say that I am now a devout “Kyrie-stian”.
While the path for Cleveland’s salvation lies in the direction of James, it’s salvific moment was from the arch of Irving’s shot. He managed to out-Steph Steph Curry, and came up big when his team needed it. Within the last minute of Game 7, he drove the ball in, threw the ball over his shoulder to Lebron… and the rest we know, is history. Lebron may have hit the final free throw and ensured his legacy, but that moment isn’t there unless Irving creates the play. Again, the signs were there for us all to see. Throughout that game, and even throughout the series, Irving became the series’ best driver and finisher at the bucket. Curry, who throughout the season hit some of the most dazzling inside and outside shots of the year, kept missing key baskets while Irving torched his opponents. In the pivotal Game 5, Irving matched Lebron’s 41 points, but to the tune of 70.8% shooting from the field. Moreover, while Lebron increasingly turned the ball over, Irving’s TO output declined, and his defensive game increased. He constantly disrupted the flow of Thompson and Curry as they traversed the lanes, and he even matched the amount of steals that Lebron had in the series overall. Irving activated on both sides of the court in a way we have not seen him until this moment, and as a result, we have witnessed a player move up into a new tier.
Statistics aside, there is something about great players that outshines numbers, and it is something internal and uncategorical. The greats have it: Jordan, Bird, and Magic. It is the quality that whenever the ball is in their hands, there is a feeling of ease that rests on teammates and fans alike, while accompanied by a sense of dread from their opponents. It is not that the player is mistake-free, but you know that something great can be created from the playmaker. Lebron has it too, of course, but there are also many times where he defers to others or makes key mistakes late in games. In fact, up until the last couple of minutes of Game 7, Lebron looked unsure of himself. He took bad shots or forced passes that didn’t work. Kyrie, on the other hand, looked confident and said of himself after the game that he took a “Mamba mentality” to finish off the Warriors. You have to be willing to go for the gut-punch, and he did just that on several occasions during this series, most notably in the final minutes of the series. I’m not saying he is quite on level with those other guys, but he is moving toward that direction. I’m also not saying that Lebron didn’t deserve the series MVP, he wholly does. What I do believe now is that we are watching the ascension of a player to the basketball heavens. There is a fierceness and drive from Irving that moves him to a new stratosphere of player in the NBA.
The Cavaliers may now have a nice trinity on their hands, but the order is different than people might expect. Lebron is not the savior, he is the creator, directing the plays on and off the court, J.R. Smith is the undeniably the holy (maybe unholy) spirit of this team, but the real savior is Kyrie. There is no championship without his aid and his shots, and for that, Cleveland fans should themselves be grateful for what he has brought to the city. I don’t know where the Cavs go next, but Kyrie might be the one to follow.