Who IS that masked man? (AP/Bill Kostroun)
Last Tuesday, Kyrie Irving returned to the Cleveland Cavaliers after a month-long absence and promptly beat the pants off the Los Angeles Lakers. It was about as impressive a comeback game as any player could hope for. Irving seemed not to have missed a beat during his break for injury.
It turns out he was just warming up. On Saturday, in his third game back from injury, Irving waltzed into Madison Square Garden and set a career high in points against the New York Knicks. The Cavs lost 103-102 as Anderson Varejao missed a game-tying free throw with one second left, but there was no question that Irving was the star of the show. Facing a red-hot team on the road, Irving scored 41 points (including 17 in the fourth quarter) on 15-of-25 shooting in one of the greatest offensive displays of the season so far. He was electric.
Oh, and to make it even cooler, he played the whole game wearing a black mask after breaking a bone in his face during Friday night's loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. Sure, the best superheroes end up victorious, but I think Irving earned a pass for at least one night.
Join me after the jump for a highlight package from Irving's huge night and more effervescent praise of one of the most exciting players in the NBA.
I am an avowed Irving superfan, so take everything I say from here on with that bias in mind. The Cavs aren't a particularly good team, but Irving has an innate star quality that any bad team needs to vault into their conference's playoff picture. Cleveland isn't particularly close to that goal, and chances are they'll finish somewhere in the gooey center of the lottery when the season ends in April. However, if Irving continues to improve at this rate, it wouldn't be shocking to find the Cavs competing for a postseason berth next season.
Frankly, while the situations aren't exactly analogous, Irving reminds me of Kevin Durant in his second NBA season. Playing for a very bad Oklahoma City squad, Durant nonetheless developed into one of the league's premier offensive players. His stats didn't always lead to wins, but they did indicate the arrival of a budding star. Irving has the potential to do something similar over these next few months. In a way, he already has.
Irving is not Durant, and I certainly don't mean to suggest he's headed for that level of dominance. For one thing, we've seen similarly talented scoring point guards before, whereas KD is a unique hybrid of several different kinds of established basketball types. But, like the Durant of 2008-09, Irving has made it clear that he cannot be ignored.
If you like to stay ahead of trends, make sure to tune in when he plays. He'll be a perennial All-Star soon enough.