Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

For the Cavaliers to win the NBA Finals they need Kyrie Irving to shine

The Cleveland Cavaliers are heavy underdogs to the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals. If the they're going to win the title, they will need Kyrie Irving to have a huge series. Is he ready for this moment?

The Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors are set to face off in a rematch of last season’s NBA Finals. On paper, this shouldn’t be much of a series. Las Vegas puts the Cavaliers as heavy underdogs. Many who watched the Warriors erase a 3-1 series deficit to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals felt like if the Warriors were going to lose in these playoffs, that was the moment it would happen. Now they view the Warriors’ repeat Championship as merely going through the motions against a Cavaliers team that the Warriors gave a 34-point spanking to in Cleveland in January. Indeed, whether it be various spots on ESPN, or in listening to NBA podcasts, or reading NBA articles so much has been said and written about why the Cavaliers cannot beat this Warriors team. As though pointing out that a Cavaliers team that had to change coaches mid-season is going to have a hard team beating the team with the best regular season record in NBA history is somehow insightful. To listen to most, one might question why the Cavaliers should even bother showing up for the series. At (-200), Las Vegas gives the Warriors a very strong 66.67 percent chance of winning this series. But of course, the Cavaliers are going to show up. They are going to compete. And they are going to try to win this series. So the question becomes, then, how? How are the Cavaliers going to upset this seemingly unbreakable Warriors juggernaut? 

There are a lot of answers to that question. And yes, a lot of things have to go the Cavaliers’ way for Cleveland to win its first ever NBA Championship. Controlling the boards, moving the ball on offense, not falling into the trap of playing into Golden State’s hands, and the Warriors missing just a few more shots than normal are all things the Cavaliers will need to see happen. But perhaps above all else, the Cavaliers need Kyrie Irving to become a legend. 

"The Cavaliers need Kyrie Irving to become a legend." 

For Kyrie, this is the moment he’s been waiting for his whole career. The realization of everyone’s hopes and dreams when the Cavaliers selected the young guard from Duke with the first-overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft. From day one of his career, Kyrie has seemed to be custom made for big moments. The bigger the stage, the brighter the lights, the higher his play has elevated. Even in just his 19th game as an NBA rookie, that moment in Boston when Kyrie Irving drove the lane in the final seconds, pulled a beautiful spin move, and laid in the game winning basket (this was against the Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett Celtics, mind you), it was clear he was made for the spotlight. Mr 4th Quarter, we called him.

Whether it be playing for Team USA and earning MVP honors at the World Cup, winning the 2014 NBA All-Star Game MVP at just 21 years old, winning the Rising Stars Game MVP, or being named 2014 USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year, Kyrie has always delivered when the stakes are highest. For the Cavaliers as a franchise, this is the highest the stakes can get. 

This NBA Finals series is being framed as Stephen Curry vs LeBron James, and with good reason. Those are the two superstar MVPs squaring off and trying to shape their legacies. A series win or loss very well could reflect more on Curry and LeBron than on Kyrie. But perhaps no player on the Cavaliers is more important for Cleveland to win than Kyrie Irving. In the regular season, Kyrie Irving’s splits in wins vs losses were fairly dramatic. In wins Kyrie scored 20.1 points, shot .465 from the field and .337 from three, and had a +/- rating of +14.9. In losses, those numbers dropped to 18.6 points, .411 shooting from the field and .286 from three, and a +/- rating of -11.9. Those variances are greater than LeBron’s in every category other than +/-, where LeBron had a .2 greater difference (+19.1 in wins, -7.9 in losses). This all makes some sense. LeBron is pretty consistent. In wins or losses, you pretty much know what you’re going to get. Kyrie is more of the wild card. When Kyrie goes bad, the team tends to get pulled down with him. Which is why if the Cavaliers are going to pull off this upset, they need Kyrie to perhaps play the best basketball of his life. They need Kyrie to add yet another MVP trophy to his mantle. This time, the Bill Russell trophy for Finals MVP.

Kyrie has been through quite a lot in his time with the Cavaliers. From frustrating losing seasons, to “buddy ball” arguments with Dion Waiters, to fans turning on him when he wasn’t able to single-handedly make the Cavaliers winners, to three coaches fired, to media speculation about Kyrie wanting out of Cleveland when he was a free agent, to suddenly not being the face of the franchise when LeBron came back, to being injured in Game 1 of the Finals last season. Yet through it all, Kyrie has always had a special quality about him. It was almost as if he was a player born with a purpose, but unsure of how to fully realize that purpose. 

But what was that purpose? It’s hard to fully understand Kyrie’s career, because it’s been such a bizarre one. Kyrie was drafted as an 18-year old who was suddenly expected to replace LeBron James. Good luck with that one, kid. And no matter how great Kyrie was, no matter how many exciting plays and moments he delivered, it was never enough. Because he wasn’t LeBron, and because the Cavaliers weren’t winning. 

And as unfair as it was, Kyrie had to try to be the leader of the franchise. With virtually every player from the LeBron era of playoffs and winning gone (and the one who was left, Anderson Varejao, couldn’t stay healthy), Kyrie was a player with no experience expected to be a leader and turn around a franchise. Sure, LeBron James did it. So Kyrie was expected to as well. 

Maybe that was unfair, maybe it wasn’t. This is the NBA. Fairness doesn’t matter. You’re simply put in the position you are given, and it’s up to the players to make what they can of it. But all of this has made it extremely difficult to figure out Kyrie and what his place in the NBA is. Now, however, Kyrie’s moment has finally arrived. This is Kyrie’s chance to cement his legacy and his place in the NBA. 

Sure, the Cavaliers won’t win if LeBron James struggles in this series. Nobody is questioning LeBron’s importance to this team. It’s also hard to imagine LeBron having a bad series. Maybe a bad quarter or even a bad game. But a bad series? That would be surprising. And yes, the Cavaliers need Kevin Love to play an important part as well. But for the Cavaliers to actually win this series, they need Kyrie Irving to be a monster. Is he ready?

This is the same player who at 22 years old was brazen enough to challenge a still somewhat-in-his-prime Kobe Bryant to a game of one-on-one. In fact, Kobe has even said that Kyrie is the Cavaliers’ “lightning rod”. Kyrie has never been one to back down from a challenge or to shrink under the weight of the moment. At his best, Kyrie is more than capable of taking over this series and being the one factor that the Warriors cannot account for. If that happens, it will open the game for the rest of the players and the offense will click. We’ve seen it happen all playoffs long. LeBron has been consistently excellent. But it’s the games when Kyrie is at his peak where the Cavaliers have looked like the unbeatable juggernaut that the Warriors are expected to be. 

Kyrie Irving has arrived for the Cavaliers and this is his moment. Without him playing at his best, the Cavaliers have little chance of winning this series. With him? Let the chips fall where they may. 

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