AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — As LeBron James made the long walk through the inner maze that is backstage at the Palace of Auburn Hills and toward the Cleveland Cavaliers’ team bus, he could feel the magnitude of the moment.
James is used to history — his history — being made in this building that had been dormant during the playoffs for seven long years since he swept the Detroit Pistons out of the first round in 2009, the last time Motor City had a postseason berth.
It was the site of his first playoff series defeat — a Game 7 loss in the second round in 2006. It was the site of perhaps his finest postseason performance — a 48-point masterpiece, which included him scoring 29 of the Cavs’ final 30 points, in a double-overtime victory in the conference finals in 2007.
And Friday night, after a 101-91 win by the Cavs to go up 3-0 on the Pistons, it was the site of the Cavs’ succession plan starting to take root. As great as James was in Game 3 — 20 points, 13 rebounds and 7 assists is no slouch of a night — it was Kyrie Irving‘s star that shined brightest for Cleveland.
In what was his finest, most-controlled, yet subtly-spectacular performance since returning to the court in December from offseason surgery to repair a fractured left kneecap, Irving poured in a game-high 26 points on 11-for-20 shooting, dished out four assists against only two turnovers and hit the shot of the night — an impossible catch-and-shoot corner 3 with just 0.7 seconds on the shot clock that gave the Cavs an unassailable eight-point lead with less than a minute left.
“It’s a special moment for our team,” James told ESPN.com as he made his way out of the arena that he admitted used to give him “sleepless nights” but has now just become another stop on his greatest hits tour. “It’s growing. This is a growing night for our team. The fact that I didn’t play particularly well offensively, as far as shooting the ball, and I was able to take a step backwards and rely on Kyrie and Kevin [Love] to pick us up offensively …
“This is a huge step for the young guys to be in a situation where, you know, this is a hostile building. No matter what the seeding is, this is a hostile building and for those guys to come through the way we did …”
James’ voice kept trailing off, replaying the night in his head moment by moment with every step out toward the Michigan night.
This time around, it was James who was the witness not only to Irving’s circus clincher but to the 24-year-old’s other 3-pointer in the final frame that might have been even bigger. After Detroit cut the Cavs’ nine-point lead with 8:16 left all the way down to one less than two minutes later, Irving knocked down a triple out of a timeout to push Cleveland’s cushion back to four and keep the Pistons at arm’s length.
To think, only two weeks prior, it was Irving’s fourth-quarter turnovers in Chicago that cost Cleveland the win in a game the team treated as a dress rehearsal for the playoffs. It was a loss that left an exasperated James to compare himself to Michelle Pfeiffer in “Dangerous Minds” as he explained his daily challenge of trying to get his young teammates to play the right way, make the correct calls and understand the opportunity that is in front of them.
It ended up being the linchpin that has propelled him to this sublime start to the postseason.
“I was really pissed off and disappointed in myself with the way I played in that Chicago game, especially the environment that we were in, and how much it meant for us,” said Irving, recounting how he texted James in the wee hours after the loss to apologize for his performance.
“[He] basically said, ‘It’s all right, it’s good that you’re acknowledging it,’ ” Irving said of James’ response. “And then I went back home and just, I thought about it a little bit, and realized what’s at stake and what we’re preparing for, and I just got to leave it for where it is, and that’s on the court in Chicago.
“I didn’t play particularly well in the fourth quarter. I still remember it. Obviously it’s still fresh in my memory. But, that game was really just a, I guess you can say, a launching point for me, just moving onto the next page and knowing what’s ahead for us and knowing how much preparation we need to have going into the postseason.
“So, that game really stuck in my head and really meant something, and to have the confidence of the guys next to me, and continue to expect greatness out of me, and every single game they expect me to play at a high level, so just wanted to give them that.”
Irving scored 35 points the very next game he played, a win over Atlanta that clinched Cleveland the No. 1 seed in the East. So far in the playoffs, he’s averaging 26.3 points on 46.8 percent from the field and 52.2 percent from 3 to go along with 4.7 assists and 1.3 steals per game. This after averaging just 19.6 points on 44.8 percent from the field in the regular season (including 32.1 percent from 3).
James has been brilliant too, averaging 23 points, 8.3 rebounds and 7.0 assists against Detroit. But Irving’s scoring average has him set up to accomplish something that’s only been done one other time in the previous 33 playoff series that James has played in, according to Cleveland.com’s Joe Vardon: a teammate of James outscoring him in a series. The only other time it occurred was when Dwyane Wade did it in the 2011 Finals.
James’ game isn’t falling off a cliff anytime soon. The body of work he showed this past season, his 13th, still puts him in squarely in the conversation as one of the three or four undisputed best players in the sport.
Yet ever since he came back to Cleveland for a second stint, the hope was he could ease his burden by letting Irving and Love carry him every once in a while. And eventually on a regular basis.
It’s the reason he publicly praised Irving’s league MVP potential in January. And it’s why he closed ranks around the point guard when Irving went through a public break-up a couple months later. He sees something special in Irving, even if there is a stubborn exterior that James has to get through to bring it out of him.
Much to James’ satisfaction, Irving has seized the moment. He’s back to writing “Whiplash” on his sneakers before playoff games, Irving’s nod to the obsessive nature it takes to win at the highest level. “Overly prepared right now,” Iman Shumpert, one of Irving’s closest friends on the team, told ESPN.com. “I think he’s overly prepared himself.”
And his mental toughness has impressed the entire organization. “His ability to play through negatives,” Cavs general manager David Griffin told ESPN.com when asked what has struck him the most about the groove Irving is in. “He used to spit the bit when things got hard.”
The Cavs’ Big Three is having an enormous impact once again and the hierarchy is proving to be malleable. Step right up, Kyrie Irving. Your time is now. “Kyrie was Kyrie,” said Cavs coach Tyronn Lue. “We’ve seen it before. We see it all the time.”
And what does Kyrie do? “I’m not going to ever stop shooting or being who I am,” Irving said.
Nor should they want him to.