Basketball: Irving winner is simply special

Cleveland guard Kyrie Irving going up for a shot after shrugging off the challenge of Golden State guard Stephen Curry, as Kevin Love (left), Klay Thompson and Draymond Green look on at the Quicken Loans Arena. Irving hit the winning jumper with 3.4
Cleveland guard Kyrie Irving going up for a shot after shrugging off the challenge of Golden State guard Stephen Curry, as Kevin Love (left), Klay Thompson and Draymond Green look on at the Quicken Loans Arena. Irving hit the winning jumper with 3.4 seconds left on the clock to help the Cavaliers to a 109-108win in the first meeting between the sides since the NBA Finals in June.PHOTO: REUTERS

Emotions run high as Cavs edge out Warriors in rematch, with both poised for Finals return

CLEVELAND • The combination of the Golden State Warriors being taken down by the Cleveland Cavaliers for a second straight time - after last season's Game 7 of the NBA Finals - on a ridiculous jumper by Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant tripping and falling on the ensuing possession, will be the story that emerges from their regular-season clash on Sunday, and understandably so.

But, in the bigger picture, the takeaway from this one is that Cleveland are the only team in the National Basketball Association (NBA) who have the combination of talent and mental toughness to stand up to Golden State - something it is now proven for a fourth straight time.

"They have out-of-this-world talent," said James, an expert on that particular subject, who had 31 points and 13 rebounds in 40 minutes in the 109-108 Christmas Day triumph.

"Obviously, emotions come not only for the players, but for the media and the fans because of the last two Finals match-ups.

"Everyone starts thinking back to what happened in last year's Finals (Irving scored the championship- winning three-pointer in the final minute), or the previous Finals. Emotions, that's just human nature for all of us."

There were plenty of emotions in Sunday's game, one that was everything the NBA could ever have hoped it would be. It was as brilliant an exhibition of the sport as one can find, especially during the regular season.

This was the 18th meeting between these two teams since James returned to Cleveland 21/2 years ago, and was only the latest example of why Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue was correct to compare this rivalry with the legendary battles between the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics in the days leading up to Sunday's game.

There are plenty of similarities, most specifically with the sheer amount of talent on the floor at any one time for both teams. But what's also true is how razor-thin the margin is between them.

While Golden State obviously have improved by adding Kevin Durant, giving them the ability to have what should be, along with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, four future Hall of Famers at their disposal at any time, Cleveland have managed to take a significant step forward, as well.

That is because of the remarkable improvement from last year of Kevin Love, who simply looks like a different player now that he is in his third season in Cleveland.

After playing like an obvious third wheel the past two years, lagging behind James and Irving on the Cavaliers' pecking order, he has this season been the player he was in Minnesota, averaging 21.9 points - nearly six more than a year ago - and 10.8 rebounds.

While Love made the defensive play of his life to stay in front of Curry at the end of Game 7, he largely was a non-factor against Golden State the past two years.

In this game, however, he was a force, scoring 20 points - including 14 in the first half - and Cleveland were hurt by his absence after he picked up a fourth foul early in the third quarter.

Questions remain about whether Cleveland can hang on with Golden State over a seven-game series in June, though.

While J.R. Smith was missing from this game because of a fractured right thumb, the Cavaliers played only eight players, with Irving playing 44 minutes and James 40.

Golden State, meanwhile, played 12, with 11 getting at least five minutes of action.

Three of those five players Cleveland featured - DeAndre Liggins, who started for Smith, Iman Shumpert and Richard Jefferson - were non-factors offensively for most of the game, finishing a combined three for 21 from the field, before Jefferson and Shumpert scored a combined nine points in the fourth.

It looked like that depth - plus the brilliance of Durant, who had 36 points and 15 rebounds - would be the difference.

There may be 28 other teams in the NBA, but Sunday once again proved that these two are in a league of their own.

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 27, 2016, with the headline 'Irving winner is simply special'. Print Edition | Subscribe