Guarding 55

Steve Blake and Damian Lillard react to Kyrie Irving’s career-high 55-point performance.
by January 29, 2015

When Steve Blake led Maryland to the National Championship as a senior in 2002, Kyrie Irving was in fifth grade. On Wednesday night in Cleveland, however—with LeBron James sidelined for a matchup with Damian Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge and the visiting Portland Trail Blazers—Irving proved yet again that he’s all grown up.

After missing his first seven shots, the Cavaliers point guard and SLAM 185 cover subject finished with a career-high 55 points. The three-pointer he hit with six seconds remaining gave Cleveland a 97-94 lead that he’d later finalize with two more free-throws. Blake, the 11-year pro with Portland who has played in over 800 NBA games, put Kyrie’s performance into perspective after chasing him around for parts of the contest.

“Irving was individually just really impressive,” Blake told SLAM after the game. “A great talent like that, on certain nights, there isn’t much you can do about it. Hat’s off to him, he was playing great.”

Even after starting 0-for-7 from the field, Irving somehow arrived at 20 points with six minutes to go in the second quarter. Through three quarters, he totaled 39 points and five assists. He closed the fourth by adding 16 more, while sending LeBron James and the Cavaliers bench into hysterics as he eclipsed the NBA season-high of 52 established by Mo Williams and Klay Thompson. Blake, Lillard and others played respectable defense on Irving all night, too, but I’m not sure Gary Payton in his prime could’ve done much to break his zone.

“He got free a few times where he got wide-open looks,” Blake said. “But for the most part he was making contested shots. Like I said, some nights, guys like him, Kobe, these great players, sometimes there’s nothing you can do. You try to be physical, you try to send him to the big guys in the paint, but he was even finishing over them.”

To close out the first quarter, Irving scored the final 11 points in a 1:39 span. He also scored the final 12 points of the game, and has now scored more points in an NBA game played in Cleveland than any player not named Michael Jordan. Jordan hung 69 on the Cavs in 1990 and all of LeBron’s 50-plus games for the Cavaliers have come on the road. Only James, Walt Wesley and now Irving have scored as many as 50 points in a Cavaliers uniform throughout franchise history.

“A lot of these young guys, it’s cool to see how talented they really are,” Blake added. “Basketball itself just produces better and better players all the time. Lillard, obviously, is another one of those guys. Night-in, night-out, he’s fantastic. He competes, he has that killer instinct, and he and Kyrie are two of the best point guards in the game right now.”

The last time Lillard and Irving met, the outcome was dramatically different. On November 4 in Portland, Lillard’s team beat Irving’s, 101-82. The Blazers star PG finished with 27 points, seven assists and six rebounds while Irving shot 3-of-17 from the floor to finish with nine. On this night, though—despite an inspiring performance from LaMarcus Aldridge (38 points, 11 rebounds) who is playing through significant pain while postponing season-ending thumb surgery—it was all Uncle Drew.

“You’ve got to give him credit,” Lillard said of Irving, named an Eastern Conference All-Star reserve on Thursday night. “He made tough shots. They were out there without LeBron and he carried them. He played a great game. I’ve watched him play, obviously that was his career high, but I’ve seen him get on streaks before. He’s really crafty. But usually it’s mid-range pull-ups and nice layups. It’s not 11 threes. I think he’s just in a good rhythm, he’s playing really well right now.”

Irving is now averaging 28.4 points and 5.4 assists during the Cavaliers eight-game winning streak. He’s also shooting 50.6 percent from three this month for a Cavs team that finally looks like the championship contender that most expected heading into the season.

“I feel like the pace that I’m playing with right now is just giving me a lot more open looks,” Irving explained. “Especially in transition—pulling up in transition for the three-point shot from me to JR to LeBron is definitely helping us get points, especially when we get down or we have lulls within the game. The three-point shot is helping us. Our bigs are doing a great job of just coming in and screening transition, being open and being willing screeners every single time down. It just makes my job a lot easier to come down and make an easy decision to either pull up or attack the rim or drop off to our bigs.”

The decisions Kyrie made with the basketball on his way to those 55 points were almost as mesmerizing as the point total he finished with. He reminded me of watching Allen Iverson attack the basket on multiple offensive trips throughout the game. His crossover and drives were not only quick, but also fierce, deliberate, and simply unguardable.

“I’m just happy we got the win,” Irving told the media afterwards. “That’s the only thing that really matters and we continue our streak. We go into our next game Friday against a good Kings team.”

LeBron James (sore right wrist) is listed as doubtful for the Cavaliers (27-20) matchup with the visiting Kings (16-28) on Friday. Irving will enter the contest averaging 46.5 points in the last two games, though, so there’s at least that if the King can’t go.

Brendan Bowers is an NBA writer who covers the Cavaliers and the NBA in Cleveland for SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @BowersCLE. Image via Getty.