Welcome to King of the Court, our daily celebration of the best performances in basketball from the night that was. We’ll be keeping track of the best player of every night of the NBA season, and tallying the results as we go along.
King of the Court: Kyrie Irving
“It was never in doubt,” LeBron James said after the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 109–108 Christmas Day victory over the Golden State Warriors in the unofficial “Game 8” of last season’s NBA Finals epic. James was referring to Kyrie Irving’s “special” level of talent, but the sound bite might as well have been about the end result. For the second consecutive game between these two titans of the league, it was Irving who put it upon himself to deliver over the outstretched hands of a Warriors defender and score the deciding field goal within the closing minute. Irving finished the game with 25 points, 10 assists, seven steals, and six rebounds in 43 minutes.
It took a while to get going, though, as it typically does for Irving, in more ways than one. He entered the fourth quarter shooting 5-of-16 from the field, but the Cavs never waved him off, nor did Irving ever switch out of his default attack mode. The Cavs, who trailed for most of the game and found themselves down by as many as 14 in the early stages of the fourth quarter, just bided their time. LeBron’s 16-point third quarter allowed Irving’s impending late-game heroics to incubate.
After so many high-intensity matchups between the two teams, both sides have gleaned the rivalry’s natural patterns and rhythms. Kyrie would have his moment because, like in any game of import, fourth quarters are a measure of how well a team can sustain itself in the face of erosion. When plays break down, when bodies break down, what remains? Irving’s fourth-quarter brilliance (14 points on 6-for-11 shooting, with two rebounds, two assists, and three steals in the final 12 minutes) was Cleveland’s answer.
Even in a matchup defined by both teams’ strong ball movement and perimeter spacing, the game presented pockets for Irving and Kevin Durant to flash their abilities in broken isolation play. If Kyrie isn’t in immediate scoring position upon receiving a pass, he is never more deadly than when he has the ball in his hands for longer than six seconds. He can look lost in a daydream in those sequences, almost ruminative, as he enters one of his intoxicating dribbling patterns, not only mapping out his own course of action, but predicting and preempting that of his defender. Every isolation play becomes a double-sided game of Connect Four; when given that space to breathe, process the situation, and execute, Irving is a genius. And it’s generally wise to let geniuses do what they do best.
When I talked to Evan Turner about playing in the post and midrange before the season, he lauded Irving while using him as an example of how a player’s abilities can be misjudged if he doesn’t have a game that aligns completely with the league’s zeitgeist. “I had one guy get pissed when I said that Kyrie might be the most gifted offensive guard in the league,” Turner said. “And these quote-unquote nerds went berserk. I was like, it’s not that [I said he was the best], but Kyrie can dribble, can shoot midrange, can post up, can score from all over the court and finish at a high level. Not saying he’s better than Steph Curry or anything like that. I just think he’s the most gifted offensive guard in the league. People didn’t comprehend that until they saw him do it in the playoffs and the Finals. Sometimes I think a lot of people read stuff without getting a deep affirmation on things. Sometimes you can’t really explain it.”
Irving is one of the few star point guards in the league who has found success by, in essence, eschewing traditional point guard responsibilities. LeBron’s systemic influence on the team has allowed him to thrive in an anti-PG role, which can make valuing him tricky, especially when decades of fan culture have generally insisted on comparing players to stereotypical positional tropes. Irving, then, can be seen not only as an iso-heavy throwback, but a way forward in how we value a player’s role within a team’s specific concept instead of how it compares with players of similar stature — no matter how different their responsibilities are.
“I’m confident in who I am and what I bring to this team,” Irving told ESPN at a promo event last month. “I know I’m in this right now. In this moment and I got to be great for my team. I can’t be thinking about, ‘Should I try to get what Steph gets?’ Or, ‘Should I try to get what [Russell Westbrook] gets?’ Should I try to get what all these other guys get? Because then I would lose myself. I would lose myself completely.”
It’s a testament to both Irving’s talent and to how much the game has changed that the general public no longer bats an eye at LeBron James taking only two shots in the final frame, that it’s no longer a sign of weakness for James to allow his copilot to take over as he wishes. LeBron and Kyrie’s power dynamic is unconventional, but such is the new NBA. Pushing back against time-tested conventions is a pathway to success, and Kyrie Irving is thriving right now.
Runner-up: Richard Jefferson
Richard Jefferson, like his teammate Irving, applied the Kobe Bryant Principle against the Warriors on Christmas, which states that people won’t remember the shots you miss as long as the shots you do make are iconic. Jefferson went 2-for-11 off the bench for the Cavs, and, on any other day, it would have gone down in the books as a forgettable performance from an over-the-hill player who just wanted to prove to himself that he could do this NBA thing for another year. But this was Christmas, and Santa rewarded RJ’s year of impeccable snaps with, for old time’s sake, the gift of flight.
Santa also gifted Jefferson a swallowed whistle with three seconds remaining in the game with Kevin Durant falling to the floor on an apparent trip. How much that matters depends on how much you put stock into a December game. Look, it’s the holiday season. Let’s not get stuck in the mire here. Or, at least, let’s keep those feelings locked up until June and unleash them then, when they actually matter.