No player makes basketball look more like an individual sport than Kyrie Irving, and perhaps no player makes the sport look more mesmerising.
Therein lies the rub with Irving, one of the great basketball artists of our time, and like most artists, someone who works best alone.
Even playing alongside LeBron James, Irving existed in isolation. There is the rest of the game and then there is Irving. He is off to the side when he doesn’t have the ball, and the other nine players are off to the side when he has it. There is no connectivity – only Irving’s spotlight.
Kobe Bryant felt like this at times, but in an unsettling way. Irving, while not as historic as Bryant, is more magical, and perhaps more sympathetic as a viewing experience.
Bryant made everything look hard but incredible. Irving makes everything look easy.
(Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
He plays two or three beats differently than everyone – both ahead of them and behind them, as necessary – as though basketball is a video game that he’s clocked, and is playing against people turning on a console for the first time.
The moves and the slow builds of his attack are captivating – the calculated surveying dribbles, the sudden bursts of acceleration, the fakes into fakes, the hesitations and the touch. The ball is always caressed – whether off glass or off his hands. It just slides into the hoop. Irving will be fading away baseline, balanced in his off-balancedness, with hands in his face, and the ball arcs high and kisses the glass, tear-dropping at the acutest of angles through the hoop.
He can strike at any time – doing his extended dance routines or just pulling up immediately for a deep three. It doesn’t matter – these are allegedly bad shots that always feel like going in. His efficiency is comical – the past two years in Boston he was almost a 50/40/90 player, taking what should be the hardest shots in the game. Only Stephen Curry is in the same room with his sense of impossibility.
Curry, of course, being the player right next to Irving in the moment that confirmed Irving’s legacy for all of time – as a star who hit one of the handful of biggest shots in NBA history, to win Game 7 of the Finals.
It would be easier to understand Irving if that shot never went in and Stephen Curry’s shot over Kevin Love did. Everything would fit more neatly – Irving as the score-first, ball-hog guard who you just can’t win with.
But Irving ripped the heart out of Golden State across Games 5 and 7 of those Finals, every bit as much as LeBron did. He needed LeBron and everything that LeBron brings, but he was a winning player on the biggest stage.
He will have his second act as an elite Robin next season alongside Kevin Durant. His current reality makes more sense, though – the alpha and the omega for an otherwise middling team; an odd, ambivalent stage where he can simply go to work and get cooking.
The juxtaposition of Irving against the Jazz at Barclays Center was illustrative. The Jazz thrive on structure, ball movement and open shots. They are a perfectly drafted legal document.
Against the Nets they moved the ball and made their high percentage shots, while Rudy Gobert infected every Brooklyn possession. Irving and his chaos were the only antidote – and for a brief stretch in the fourth quarter where he couldn’t miss and the moves were too much even for Gobert, it looked like he might topple a giant all by himself.
He didn’t, because most nights he needs a James or a Durant. But the crowd was thrilled all the same, with the typically dead Brooklyn crowd awakening for Irving’s moves – the build-up more important than the finish.
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