Kyrie Irving Proves He Belongs Among NBA’s Best With Breakout Performance in Houston

Kyrie IrvingKyrie Irving cut through the lane, caught a pass from Dwyane Wade and banked in a layup in a play that would not make any of the highlight reels for the 2013 NBA All-Star Game. In an exhibition filled with Blake Griffin dunks, Kobe Bryant blocks and Chris Bosh misfortune, the most basic play imaginable capped a night that changes everything for Irving.

Make no mistake: Irving has been one of the best players in the league for some time. The top pick in the 2011 draft and the reigning rookie of the year was a clear-cut choice for the Eastern Conference All-Star squad, with an argument to be made that he should have been voted as the starter over Rajon Rondo, pre-injury. Cleveland will never forgive LeBron James for his public exit in 2010, but Irving’s arrival has to dull the pain a little. Irving would not be a Cavalier, after all, if not for the awful season that followed James’ departure.

To the basketball-watching world at large, though, Irving was still somewhat anonymous before last weekend. Casual fans have heard of him, but because the league’s TV partners stubbornly insist on showing teams that will get good ratings, not everyone has seen Irving play all that often. He has been a very good player toiling in the middle of nowhere, like Ray Allen in Milwaukee or Kevin Garnett in Minnesota early in their careers. Aside from the most dedicated League Pass viewers, fans only really get a chance to see those guys once a year, when the greatest talent collects in one place.

So while diehard fans scoffed at the notion that All-Star weekend was Irving’s coming-out party, that is exactly what it was. First, he made Brandon Knight look silly with a crossover leading to a step-back jump shot in the BBVA Rising Stars Challenge on Friday. Then, he out-shot Matt Bonner in the 3-point contest on Saturday. Finally, he dropped 15 points — the final two coming on that standard cut-and-feed from Wade — in his first All-Star game on Sunday.

A breakout performance is exactly what this was.

After this, Irving can no longer be overlooked or lightly admired as a nice up-and-coming player. He demonstrated his excellence in so many varied areas, from Friday’s streetball competition to Saturday’s shootout to Sunday’s showcase, that he assured his place in the discussion of the league’s best players and indisputably one of its top five point guards. He already belonged in both categories, but it is one thing to be really good and another thing to have people actually recognize that.

The greatest statement of Irving’s arrival, however, was not a fancy pass or nifty dribble or long-range shot. It came when East coach Erik Spoelstra selected his lineup for the crucial minutes in a close fourth quarter.

Despite what often amounts to three-plus quarters of matador defense and uncontested dunks, the NBA All-Star game is probably the most watchable of all the all-star games for the simple reason that the true stars are the ones on the court at the end. Unlike in baseball, where the most fearsome sluggers and shutdown hurlers take a seat sometime around the fourth inning, the end of the NBA All-Star game is the realm of the league’s best. It has led to the rare exciting ending, such as Allen Iverson leading the East’s comeback in 2001 or Michael Jordan going shot-for-shot with Bryant in 2003.

As the East made its push on Sunday, closing the gap to as little as three points in the final four minutes, Spoelstra picked most of the predictable faces. He went with James, obviously, plus Wade and Carmelo Anthony, established stars in their primes. The other two spots he rotated between Paul George, Joakim Noah and Irving, depending on the matchups. George and Noah are arguably the best perimeter and post defender in the game, respectively, so their presence on the court spoke volumes of the trust Spoelstra had in the first-time All-Stars.

Irving’s inclusion in the closing lineup was just as powerful a statement. This little guard out of Duke is unquestionably one of the best players in the world, and now the world knows it.

Have a question for Ben Watanabe? Send it to him via Twitter at @BenjeeBallgame or send it here.

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