By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — There has been, naturally, quite a bit of reaction out there after the Celtics and Cavaliers shocked the basketball world with a late-August blockbuster trade involving Isaiah Thomas and Kyrie Irving. That is to be expected.
And one criticism of Irving that you’ve heard quite a bit is that if he so desperately wanted to get out of Cleveland and get away from LeBron James even after going to three consecutive NBA Finals, then you have to wonder about his attitude. Is he selfish? Is he looking to boost his individual stats? Is he nuts for not wanting to play with the best player in the world?
Well, those are all questions, sure, but I feel like one thing has gotten lost in that aspect of the discussion: Kyrie Irving won the NBA Finals two years ago. As in, he made the series-winning shot. He scored the points that won the game in the final minute of Game 7 on the road.
It was a wild end to a wild series. LeBron made a 3-pointer with just under five minutes to go, which put the Cavs up by two. Klay Thompson then tied things up at 89 apiece with 4:39 left to play. The score then remained locked at 89-all for the next 3:46.
LeBron missed a shot. Steph Curry missed a 3. LeBron missed again. Thompson missed. LeBron was blocked by Andre Igoudala. who then missed a 3 of his own. Kevin Love missed a shot. Draymond Green missed a 3. Irving missed a short shot. Curry missed another 3.
Nobody was scoring. Then, as the clock ticked under a minute, Irving broke the trend — and the tie.
From there, Love played outstanding defense on the perimeter to force Curry to miss a 3. Then Irving saved his own miss from going out of bounds to keep possession, and later set up LeBron for what could have been the series-clinching dunk, but James was fouled (and then spent a good 90 second on the court nursing what he made to seem to be a broken wrist but in actuality wasn’t anything).
LeBron valiantly drained one of his two free throws, making it a two-possession lead for the Cavs. Curry missed a 3, and that was the ballgame. The Cavaliers won their first ever title, and the city of Cleveland its first professional sports championship since 1964. And it wouldn’t have happened if not for Kyrie Irving.
LeBron shared a long hug with Kyrie and then spoke to Doris Burke. In a speech that was no doubt practiced several times in front of a mirror, here’s what he said:
“I set out a goal, two years, when I came back, to bring a championship to this city. I gave everything that I had. I poured my heart and my blood and my tears to this game and … against all odds, against all odds, I don’t know why we want to take the the hardest road. I don’t know why the man above gave me the hardest road, but there’s nothing the man above don’t put you in situations that you can’t handle. And I just kept that same positive attitude like instead of saying ‘Why me?’ I was saying ‘This is what he wants me to do.’ And … CLEVELAND! THIS IS FOR YOU!”
LeBron was then asked about the comeback from a 3-1 series deficit and specifically what changed in Game 5. He said:
“Just locked in. I had to change my approach a little bit in how I approached the game. I wasn’t that good in the first two games in this building [in Golden State]. I watched a lot of film, detailed it out, changed my blueprint, and was able to put together some spectacular games after being down 3-1. History, we in the record books, we the first team ever to come back from a 3-1 deficit. This is special.”
I mean, look, James was criticized so much and for so many silly reasons over the years that any and all criticism of him now basically gets added to that pile. But reading these words now … can’t you see why Kyrie might have wanted to get away?
James shot under 50 percent in the series. In the deciding Game 7, he went 9-for-24 from the field and 1-for-5 from 3-point range. He did score 41 points in Game 5, but he did so on 16-of-30 shooting. In the Cavaliers’ three wins after falling behind 3-1 in the series, LeBron shot 50.6 percent on 81 shots.
He was, of course, tremendous on the boards and valuable as a playmaker (11.3 rebounds and 8.9 assists per game in the Finals), but it was certainly striking to see him say he “was able to put together some spectacular games after being down 3-1” just minutes after missing three field goals in the final minutes of a tight Game 7. Rather than go on and on about how God specifically mapped out the course of a basketball series for him, maybe LeBron could have mentioned the shot that Kyrie hit to finish off the Warriors?
I was curious, so I checked out the transcript of LeBron’s postgame press conference. He was asked 11 questions. His answers totaled over 1,400 words. He didn’t mention Kyrie Irving’s name once.
Here are some highlights of LeBron’s postgame comments:
“I’m true to the game, and I know what I bring to the table. I came back for a reason. I came back to bring a championship to our city. I knew what I was capable of doing. I knew what I learned in the last couple years that I was gone, and I knew if I had to — when I came back, I knew I had the right ingredients and the right blueprint to help this franchise get back to a place that we’ve never been. That’s what it was all about. … To be able to continue to build up our city, to continue to be an inspiration to our city, it means everything.”
“My guys believe in me as their leader every single day. I preach to them every single day. I’m their leader, and they allow me to lead those guys every single night. I was just true to that.”
“This is my second one, and I’m able to say that I’ve been victorious twice in Game 7.”
“Throughout my 13-year career, I’ve done nothing but be true to the game, give everything I’ve got to the game, put my heart, my blood, sweat, tears into the game, and people still want to doubt what I’m capable of doing. So that was a little icing on the cake for myself to just let me know that everything I’ve done, it results in this.”
“I knew what I was capable of doing. I knew my guys would allow me to lead them throughout the 48 minutes, and they did that.”
“I wish I could tell you exactly what happened, but I had to be calm in order for my 14 guys to allow me to lead them and for those guys to play the way they played.”
There at the end, he finally gives some credit to his teammates, but he does so by saying he himself made it possible for them to shine.
During the trophy presentation, LeBron also said this when asked about his team’s resiliency:
“We’ve been through so much adversity these last two years. I just knew what we was capable of, even being down 3-1 vs. the greatest regular-season team ever, you know, 73-9. Everybody counted us out, and that’s when we strive the most, when everybody counts us out. And that’s definitely when I strive the most, when everybody counts me out.”
Again, this isn’t to add on to the memes that compare LeBron’s postgame mentions of himself to hockey players’ use of “we.” That level of LeBron hate peaked years ago on the internet. LeBron James is who he is, and from the outside, it’s not worth getting worked up over it.
It is, however, at least one avenue of understanding into why Kyrie Irving might be eager to get out of LeBron’s shadow in Cleveland. And certainly, with LeBron all but guaranteed to ditch Cleveland again after this upcoming season, Irving had added incentive to take care of his own situation before ending up getting left behind on a sinking ship.
Maybe, despite what people are saying, he’s not so crazy when it comes to wanting out of Cleveland.