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Kyrie Irving and Cavaliers playoff rookies ace debut
CLEVELAND — Kyrie Irving might not have all the answers to the first playoff exam of his career just yet.
But in his playoff debut on Sunday, the Cleveland Cavaliers guard aced the quiz.
He made his first three shots, scored 12 points in the second quarter, had 20 points at halftime and finished with a game-high 30 points in Cleveland’s 113-100 victory against the Boston Celtics in Game 1 of their opening-round Eastern Conference series.
“It started with Ky. He’s our floor general,” Cavs star LeBron James said. “He set the tone early on with his ability to make shots, his ability to get in the lane. Obviously, he can shoot the ball extremely well. He’s able to mix it up. I thought he was phenomenal.”
It’s just the start of a first-round series and the beginning of what should be a long playoff slog, but Irving was fantastic. He has professed his love for the big stage, though that stage has been limited — save for one NCAA tournament appearance and an MVP-performance for Team USA in the 2014 FIBA World Cup.
But he has a comfort level simply playing his style and understanding that will help his team. Irving’s talent is obvious, and his confidence drives that. Without question, he presents a difficult match-up for any opponent with his ability to create and make shots.
This moment was hardly too big for Irving, who became the second Cavaliers player to score to at least 30 points his playoff debut. Of course, James is other.
“Having four days of preparation and being with my brothers in the war room going over film, going into the game you feel prepared,” Irving said.
Addressing the playoff inexperience of a few players in his rotation, Cavaliers coach David Blatt said he wasn’t concerned about how Irving, Love, Tristan Thompson and Matthew Dellavedova would perform in their first playoff game.
“They have a desire to succeed and to be a part of this great thing, the playoffs,” Blatt said. “If it takes them more time or less time to get into their flow, then we’ll be fine with that. We’ve got other guys who have been there before and hopefully will lead the way. But those guys will be fine. They’ll be there.”
After a difficult start for Love — just two made shots in his first 11 attempts — he acquitted himself with 19 points and 12 rebounds, and Thompson did his usual work, scoring 12 points and collecting six rebounds, including four offensive boards for one of the best rebounders in the league on that end of the floor.
Even if this was James’ first playoff game in a Cavs uniform since Cleveland lost to Boston in 2010, this moment was not about James and he realized it. James, who had 20 points, seven assists and six rebounds, wanted to make sure Irving and Love were engaged early, and James made sure they were getting touches, especially Love.
“They succeeded for their first time being in the postseason,” James said.
If the Cavaliers are going to play in the Eastern Conference championship and beyond, they need strong play from Love.
“It’s very important that Kev stays involved. For our ultimate goal, Kev has to be in a rhythm or at least touching the ball, and I feel like he’s a part of what we’re doing, which he is,” James said. “I’m going to have the ball a lot, Kyrie’s going to have the ball a lot. I just try to find a way to get Kev touches early on if it’s the post or I come off pick-and-rolls.”
There’s something bigger going on, too. James, Irving and Love conducted their postgame interviews together on the dais. Love nodded when he listened to James talk about just playing the game and focusing on each possession and not worrying about the refs.
Irving bemoaned missed plays and said, “That feeling in your stomach is you want to do better.”
James, Irving and Love are further forging their partnership that will be necessary for wins bigger than Game 1 of the first round.
“LeBron is a champion. Me and Kev don’t really have that experience,” Irving said. “We’re all learning from each other. The biggest thing is you want that as a competitor. As you prepare and get ready for the postseason, you want your best players to be at their best.
“We set the tone at both ends of the floor. We set it mentally and physically. We want to be there for everyone. We have to hold each other accountable. We got together. We are the Big Three. We have a lot of really great players on this team, but we set the tone.”