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Kyrie Irving Is Right Where He Needs To Be

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 9: Kyrie Irving #11 of the Dallas Mavericks looks on during the game against the Oklahoma City Thunder during Round Two Game Two of the 2024 NBA Playoffs on May 9, 2024 at Paycom Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2024 NBAE (Photo by Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images)
Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images

Kyrie Irving shot just 2-for-8 from the floor for nine measly points on Thursday night. An experienced Irving-watcher might see that stat line and assume he was bottled up, and that his team probably lost. But the Mavericks won Game 2 in OKC, and they did so because of how great Irving was at everything else besides scoring the ball.

Game 2 was playoffs hoops at its volcanic best. The intensity and focus with which everyone (besides Josh Giddey) was attacking every possession elevated the contest into a pretty special place. It was the sort of game where both teams emptied the notebook and tried to destroy each other with their best stuff (benching Giddey, to name one). Every possible mismatch was ruthlessly hunted and every rebound fought over with burly aplomb. Members of the Jalen Williams-Jaylin Williams Power Rankings were flying around making plays while Dallas' shooters were nailing what seemed like every corner three, and with the score tied halfway through the third quarter, it seemed we were heading towards a tense, close finish. That's when Irving stepped up, with Luka Doncic cheering from the bench, and made a series of what would turn out to be game-winning plays.

Irving first broke the deadlock by executing a clean drive-and-kick that got Josh Green a corner three, then after Tim Hardaway Jr. got loose a bit and opened up a slight cushion, Irving ratcheted up the defensive intensity, bottled up Shai Gilgeous-Alexander on a switch, and threw a gorgeous three-quarter court assist to THJ.

OKC called a timeout, attempting to forestall Dallas' momentum and dial something up to steal back the initiative. Instead, Dallas' locked-in defense blew up the initial action, and when Isaiah Joe desperately kicked back to Jaylin Williams, Irving read the play perfectly and swooped in for his second straight steal. On the attack in transition, Irving then showed off something I think he does better than anyone in the NBA, which is quickly destabilizing the defense by passing it right back to the guy who passed it to him. Hardaway Jr. nailed another three, and within a two-minute stretch, with their best player on the bench, the Mavs were up 11.

Moments like that make the difference when the margins are this tight, and Irving, despite his third-ever single-digit playoff game, was genuinely great for the Mavs all night. He played 41 minutes and tossed a playoff-career-high-tying 11 dimes. Thunder proponents or anti-three-point activists might point to the shooting differentials as the operative reason why the Mavs won. Dallas went 18-for-37 while OKC shot just 10-for-30, and in a nine-point game that 24-point swing clearly made the difference. The thing is, most of those Dallas threes were not meaningfully contested, as Irving and Doncic made a ton of space with their driving and capitalized with their passing (Doncic, as usual, was great).

When Irving was traded to Dallas, there were plenty of reasons to be skeptical. How long would it be until he got antisemitic online again? What would be the small disagreement that would spiral into larger-order discontent, souring relationships in every direction? He had to know he was running out of chances to alienate fans and piss people off, and so far he hasn't said anything stupid off the court while being great on the court.

Doncic is the center of Dallas' offense, as he should be, though I think it is easy to overlook how great he and Irving have been together. The duo has a 120.3 offensive rating in both the playoffs and regular season this year, and while their skillsets are broadly similar, Game 2 showed off the critical differences in their games. Irving was more or less doing traditional point guard stuff and initiating the offense. He is maybe the best dribbler of the basketball in the NBA, and he's spent the playoffs breaking down defenses off the bounce at will. The stats don't always show it, because he's starting plays way more often than he's finishing them. Game 2 was a lot like Dallas' Game 5 against the Clippers, in that Kyrie also spent that game initiating more than finishing, to devastating effect.

The one stat that really shows Irving's increased juicefulness is steals, and he has multiple thefts in seven of Dallas' eight playoff games this year. He's been a genuinely great point of attack defender, pestering ballhandlers, putting his chest into guys on their drives, and always seeming to poke the ball off a driver's knee once or twice a game. That's what Dallas needs, as OKC is full of ferocious zoomers who aren't afraid of anything and will attack the basket hard on every possession. There's no way this series will become less intense as it goes on, especially with Mark Daigneault finally yoinking Giddey from the lineup. OKC has more guys than Dallas, so the Mavericks will need Kyrie to keep playing like this to hang with them.

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