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Watching Kyrie Irving, as Imperfect as Perfect Can Get

The Cleveland Cavaliers' Kyrie Irving can do things no other NBA point guard can do. What gets him into trouble is doing them all at once. In Game 5 of the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors, however, it all worked.

by Robert O'Connell
Jun 14 2016, 3:31pm

Photo by Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

This article is part of VICE Sports' 2016 NBA Playoffs coverage.

For most of Monday night's fifth game of the NBA Finals, there was plenty going on. LeBron James shot over and shouldered through the Golden State Warriors defense from the start; Klay Thompson spent the first two quarters singeing the prints off his fingertips; Stephen Curry contributed occasional magic; Kevin Love became still more convincing in his role as Just the Biggest Bummer, Man. In the ballpark across the way, Draymond Green sat, suspended, watching his team on TV while the A's blew out the Texas Rangers. At halftime, the score was 61-61, and the game had registers of competitiveness and expertise that had been almost entirely absent from the series to this point. It was a welcome change: if this was going to be the end of what had been a lackluster Finals, it would at least gesture in the direction of what could have been on the way out the door.

One of the many things happening in the game's hectic early stages was that Kyrie Irving, Cleveland's prodigious and much fussed-over point guard, was playing very well. He accounted for 18 of the Cavaliers' 61 first-half points, second only to James's 25, and made eight of his ten field-goal attempts. Anyone who has watched the Cavs even in passing can guess at the style of those buckets: whirling drives culminating in layups spun in from impossible angles, stepback crossover pull-ups, cocksure threes.

Read More: What Is a $2600 NBA Finals Ticket Actually Worth?

But the casual Cavs-watcher would also be able to make an informed guess on how Irving's night would likely end. Those tough shots would stop falling, as they did in Game 4, and he would continue taking them. James would yell and shake his head, Mark Jackson would enunciate the hell out of the observation that You Have to Make Shots, and the Warriors would celebrate their second straight title on their home court.

In Game 5, though, it didn't happen that way. In fact, as the evening went along, all that varied wildness in the early going irised in to a single main event, which was Kyrie Irving torching the Warriors defense again and again. He scored 23 more points in the second half and steered the Cavs out of Golden State's reach. He had announcers and teammates alike trying to put him in historical context. On a floor full of players who can be unstoppable, he was the player who actually was unstoppable Monday night, and he preserved and prolonged Cleveland's season. This was a very special episode of The Kyrie Show.

When you're getting those wide open looks. Photo by Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Matching up against Curry tends not to do Irving any favors. Both stylistically and in evolutionary basketball terms, Curry is notable because he can accomplish obscene feats without incurring major risk. A 28-footer, for him, counts as a responsible shot, and his talent for shooting and ball-handling means that even the most staggering sequence—a couple dribbles behind the knees, a lunge backwards, and then a dart around the defender for a floater lifted high off the glass—has a certain logic to it. Curry is a miracle of modernity, the basketball equivalent of discovering that your favorite dessert is also the very healthiest thing you can eat.

Irving, on the other hand, is a gunner in the old mold. He is a captivating dribbler, too, but you sense that sometimes one of the people he ends up captivating is himself; he may cycle through three different maneuvers without getting a foot closer to the basket. He can make tough shots, but that knowledge leads him to take tough shots, often without so much as glancing at the other Cavaliers on the court. In short, his game still has all the familiar drawbacks of the genre, and he can get lost amid the kinks that Curry has smoothed out.

Maybe because of this, though, Irving also has a little more gumption. Down the stretch of Game 5, as Curry struggled to find space against a sprinting and reaching and grabbing Cleveland defense, Irving went about manufacturing room for himself. At the start of the third quarter, he took a bump from Andrew Bogut and finished a layup. Later on, he drove hard at Thompson, Golden State's best perimeter defender; spun back over his left shoulder; and banked in a short fadeaway as Thompson fouled his arm. It was a simple gamble, repeated: I'm in a tough spot, but I'm good enough to get out of it.

When you're a distributor, first and foremost. Photo by Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

My favorite of Irving's plays came at the start of the fourth quarter. Curry guarded him with extra attention, the kind that suggested that he didn't much care if the Cavs scored so long as Irving didn't. Irving took three hard dribbles, pulled up, and put a jumper off the glass right over Curry's outstretched hand. It was one of the more straightforward moves of Irving's night, but it registered as a gauntlet thrown. It seemed almost like an attack on the diagrammatic nature of Curry's success, and on the catalog of skills that usually lets him avoid such a direct challenge. It suggested that, for all his accolades, Curry lacked something that Irving had.

Here's the thing, though: this is probably all bullshit. The Warriors remain heavy favorites to win the championship, and for good reason. As likely as not, their winning will be at least partially the result of Irving siphoning off too much of the Cleveland offense in his own direction. Monday's game was less a referendum than an example of a player hitting shots at a much higher clip than he usually does against a team whose best defender was suspended. That's not exactly a repeatable formula against the preeminent squad in basketball. All the talk of Game 5 burnishing Irving's legacy could sound pretty funny in three days.

But these Finals have been a little bland and very blowout-heavy, and Irving's outburst did more than give us one more game. It staked a challenge to the champs, asserting that they, and their MVP point guard, don't have the Cavaliers bested in every category. If everything gets back to familiar patterns in Game 6 or 7, with the Warriors whirring and Irving's shots falling off the rim and James finding nowhere to go against a returned Green, we at least and at last have some intrigue. Kyrie Irving has dug in as the anti-Steph, and if this isn't such a great thing most of the time, it was plenty good for one night. Golden State surely bets that it won't work out twice more; Cleveland has to hope like hell that it does. If nothing else, it should be fun.

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