MILWAUKEE - There was Kyrie Irving after dropping 13 of his 27 points across the final five minutes on Saturday night at the BMO Harris Bradley Center, his feet icing in a yellow bucket of cold water just three games into this NBA season. He got up to get dressed, leaving behind the game’s box score to drown in the bucket, and spoke composed – not deflated – after his Cleveland Cavaliers’ 105-102 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks at the buzzer.
As much as any young star in the NBA, Irving has to carry the weight of the offense on his shoulders. He’s responsible night in, night out to get his team in the proper sets every time down the court, because if he doesn’t, the Cavaliers look out of sync and don’t have another floor general to suffice. From the outset of this season, it’s been apparent to all how much the Cavaliers have struggled when Irving sits on the bench to rest.
The Cavaliers came out of the gates sharp in their first road game of the season, taking a double-digit lead in the opening quarter. Irving headed to the bench with two minutes, 11 seconds left in the first and the Cavs up 22-17. While Byron Scott raved about his team’s start, he was equally as discouraged with the lapses. As Irving sat, the Cavaliers' lead quickly vanished with unbalanced production from the reserves, and by the time he re-entered at the seven minute, 41 second mark of the second quarter, Cleveland trailed by 10 – a 15-point swing that left Scott shaking his head and going into the half assuring his coaching staff that the rotation would be cut for the last two quarters.
“I got to the point at halftime of just saying I’m going to play three guys off the bench and keep the rotation simple and keep the starters on the floor,” Scott said. “The bench guys were struggling, so I cut down the rotation. And I’ll probably stick to it: Three guys, four at the most.”
In all, the Cavaliers' bench of Daniel Gibson, Donald Sloan, Tyler Zeller, C.J. Miles and Luke Walton scored just 15 points on a paltry 6-for-22 from the field. This came only one night after their backups missed 22-of-34 shots in a blowout loss to the Chicago Bulls. The Cavaliers desperately need Gibson – always known for his brief moments as LeBron James’ sidekick – to provide sparks and leadership off the bench, but he’s been mostly sporadic from game to game.
Irving and his fellow starters, however, picked up the slack, as Anderson Verejao put forth another high-energy game with 20 points and 17 rebounds. Alonzo Gee, with whom the Cavaliers have been impressed for years, put up 18 points after scoring 12 on Friday. And while Dion Waiters has many doubters as the fourth overall pick of the 2012 NBA Draft, he has such a smooth feel for the game, glimpses of play where he’s in control of the pace as he and Irving sometimes share ball handling duties.
Still, the Bucks’ depth has challenged and overwhelmed opposing teams’ benches through two games. Mike Dunleavy, whom people around the Bucks praise for consistency, had a memorable 29-point, 12-rebound, six-assist outing, leading a reserve group that scored a combined 62 points. Third-year forward Larry Sanders continued to flourish with increased minutes – due in part to John Henson’s injury – and went for 17 points and made eight of nine shots, including a couple emphatic dunks that were followed up by waves to get the crowd going.
Yet, there was Irving on a frantic roll to bring the Cavaliers' back from blown leads, from sluggish stretches. He had a dazzling array of shots in those last five minutes – a lay in, two 14-foot jumpers, an acrobatic and-one layup, two free throws, and then willing in a finish at the rim to tie the game at 102 with less than a second left before Brandon Jennings’ game-winning three-pointer. When Irving is off the court, the Cavs’ offensive sets appear stagnant and lack cohesion, and yet bringing him back in allows everything to flow and plays to generate quality shots.
Irving scored or assisted on 35.6 percent of the Cavaliers' buckets last season and that number is at 38.3% during the first three games of the season. He figures to finish in the top-10 in the NBA this season in the category.
Irving was saying all the right things after Saturday's loss, anything but griping about a lack of help.
“Our effort out there was tremendous,” said Irving. “We’ll live and die with the effort we give out there. This loss is a little bit bitter, but the effort was great. … We have to just hold each other accountable, take the good and the bad with each other.”
He’s confident he and his Cavaliers will grow together as the season wears on, but when will potential be shoved aside in favor of production? Cleveland entered the season as a perceived playoff contender, but its reliance on Irving seems substantial. Soon, losing will be tougher to swallow for these Cavaliers and this superstar. But for now, they’re satisfied trying to improve on a daily basis, focusing on supporting Irving offensively far more than three games’ worth has shown.