The final 4:39 of Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals was as intense as any the sport has ever seen. This was Cleveland versus Golden State inside the raucous (and dearly missed) Oracle Arena in Oakland.
The stakes were enormous. The defense was hellacious. The pressure, even more so.
It’s why no one — even a floor full of future Hall of Famers — could hit a shot.
Not LeBron James, who would miss four times. Not Stephen Curry, who also missed four. Not Klay Thompson or Kevin Love or Andre Iguodala or Draymond Green.
Only one player seemed oblivious to it all. One just stepped back and drained a 3-pointer like it was a November night in Sacramento.
LeBron’s epic full-court pursuit and block of an Iguodala layup may be the enduring image of Cleveland’s historic victory, but it was Irving who broke the 89-89 tie by drilling a 25-footer with 53 seconds remaining. The Cavs would go on to win 93-89 after James hit one of two free throws. The vaunted Warriors couldn’t manage a single point.
It’s possible Irving is both one of the greatest offensive players the NBA has ever seen and one of its least self-aware. Sometimes that combination is a good thing, the difference-making, title-winning thing. Pressure? What pressure?
Other times, well, you get Irving’s postgame comments as his now Brooklyn Nets, once the betting favorites to win the NBA championship, suffered a humiliating first-round sweep at the hands of the Boston Celtics on Monday.
The question going forward for the Nets — and Irving — is if there is a way to channel it all back together, merging personality with talent into not just performance, but a player who, if nothing else, is simply present in every way.
Irving played just 29 regular season games for the Nets this season, mostly because his decision not to receive the COVID-19 vaccine put him at odds with New York City mandates.
That’s fine. This is America, and it was his individual choice. In the end, he returned to the court under his terms, a personal victory that didn’t carry over into any kind of team result for the out-of-sorts Nets.
With every decision comes a reaction though, which is why Irving should have seen the eye rolls and groans that followed his comments about both the Nets’ current on-court chemistry and their future plans. His interviews were a window into, if not self-delusion, but how he might carry himself around suspicious teammates and coaches.
After Game 3, he placed some of the blame for Brooklyn’s struggles on “guys that are just trying to jell. Usually you are jelling around the right time and that group in the other locker room [Boston] is jelling at the right time … For us, we’re in a new experience as a group.”
Gee, if only there was a way, Kyrie, for the team to have been at full strength for most of the season. Irving wasn’t done, though. After Game 4, he pledged not just to remain with the franchise but take part in decisions on how it should be run.
“When I say I’m here with [Kevin Durant]I think that it really entails us managing this franchise together alongside Joe and Sean,” Irving said.
“Joe” is Nets owner Joe Tsai. “Sean” is general manager Sean Marks.
So, Irving is going to be “managing” the organization?
Not mentioned: Coach Steve Nash.
“I think we just [have] to make some moves this offseason, really talk about it and really be intentional about what we’re building,” Irving said.
Irving is a smart guy. He gives honest answers. He seemingly means well. He isn’t even wrong — every NBA team is going to consult in some manner with star players (or even veteran role players) when making personnel decisions.
But after leaning on personal freedoms all season — and essentially wasting a highly anticipated year of both his and Durant’s prime — it’s tough to first lament the lack of roster continuity like it was just an unavoidable reality and then sell yourself as not just committed to the franchise but someone who should be entrusted with “managing” it in the future.
The guy chose his own contracts over showing up every night for his co-workers and, by his own admission, essentially blew the season. Now his co-workers should believe in him?
Again, this is Kyrie. Good and less than good. He demanded a trade from Cleveland and LeBron, whose track record of leading teams to the Finals is legendary, to strike out on his own in Boston. He then declared himself a “Celtic for Life” only, after just two seasons, to bail out for Brooklyn and partner with Durant.
Yet across three seasons with the Nets, he’s played just 103 regular season games and never got past the second round. He’s rarely been a dependable, night-in, night-out guy. He’s played in more than 60 games just four of his 11 seasons. He’s never managed more than 54 in Brooklyn.
Some of that was injury. Some of that was a choice. All of it makes his commitment to anything seem detached from reality.
This is Brooklyn’s future. This is what they bought into. Irving is Irving. Then there is Ben Simmons, who was acquired this season, yet didn’t play a game due to physical and mental health issues. Hopefully next season?
Durant, meanwhile, will be 34 in September, and while he undoubtedly remains one of the game’s best players, age, fatigue, mileage and injuries have clearly sprung up in recent years. Even stars get old while still young in the NBA.
Durant looked exhausted against Boston, in part because he had to play so much down the stretch (40:21 in the final eight games of the regular season) just to reach the playoffs … which circles back to Irving missing so many games.
Whoever is “managing” the Nets going forward needs to make a move quickly and decisively. Maybe that includes Kyrie. If so, he can start by fully committing — physically, mentally and emotionally — to winning a title next season.
That begins with showing up to play. Like, almost every night. He sees himself as a team leader. He needs to lead by example.
The man is supremely talented, and that talent includes floating through situations apparently unaware of everything going on around him.
If that can, once again, be his super power, then comically out-of-touch quotes and head in the clouds comments won’t matter.