NEW YORK: A tired and weary Kyrie Irving walked back onto the floor of the league’s most famous arena Saturday night with nine minutes left and the game slipping away. He was going on four hours of sleep and wearing a ridiculous mask that made him look like Batman. Now he needed a superhero’s effort to give the Cavs a chance.
Irving did his best by scoring a career-high 41 points, including 17 in the fourth quarter, but Anderson Varejao’s free throw with one second left rattled in and out in a crushing 103-102 loss to the New York Knicks.
“I’d trade in this performance for a win,” Irving said.
It was an eventful 24 hours for Irving, who missed the team flight to New York late Friday night after a CT scan at the Cleveland Clinic revealed a small fracture in his jaw. Irving was injured when his face slammed onto the court in the first quarter of Friday’s loss to the Milwaukee Bucks.
He remained in the game, and the fracture was revealed at the Clinic hours later. Team doctors quickly scrambled to make a mask for him, but the fast turnaround and the game against the Knicks less than 24 hours later meant there wasn’t enough time to have the traditional clear mask ready.
Instead, Irving remained in Cleveland overnight and slept little while they dealt with the logistics of preparing the mask. He didn’t arrive in New York until 4:45 p.m. for the 7:30 game and he was carrying the black mask that quickly became the target of teammates who nicknamed him the Dark Knight.
It also gives the Cavs three players sporting the masks, since Tristan Thompson and Tyler Zeller have been wearing them for weeks. In fact, Thompson’s mask has been a target of Irving’s for a while now.
“It’s kind of ironic. I was making fun of Tristan and his straps, now I’m wearing a black face mask,” Irving said before the game. “Go figure.”
He played a season-high 39 minutes in part because Scott was forced to insert him sooner than usual in the fourth quarter. But the Cavs failed to score through the first 2½ minutes as the Knicks extended a 78-73 lead to 82-73. Feeling the game slipping away, Cavs coach Byron Scott reinserted Irving with nine minutes left and rode him the rest of the way.
He took all but three of the Cavs’ shots in the game’s final six minutes, ultimately pulling them within 102-101 with 10 seconds to play. Steve Novak split a pair of Knicks free throws to stretch the lead to two. He missed the second and the Cavs were out of timeouts, leaving Irving to run the floor for a potential game-tying basket. Instead a Knicks double-team forced the ball out of his hands.
He hit a streaking Varejao, who was fouled at the basket and sent to the line in front of a roaring sellout crowd trying to force overtime.
After such a brilliant fourth quarter, Irving thought about keeping it himself, but Varejao was too open to do anything else.
“There’s always temptation there, but I have the utmost trust in my teammates,” Irving said. “Andy made a great play, got to the free-throw line and gave us a chance to win.”
Varejao made the first then as he was dribbling and starting his routine for the second, play was halted as the Knicks subbed in Kurt Thomas for Novak. Varejao had to give the ball to the official while the lane was reset, then his second shot rattled out.
“I can’t be mad,” Varejao said. “The way I missed it, it felt good. It felt better than the first one.”
Varejao said the abrupt stoppage before his second attempt didn’t affect his rhythm or concentration.
“But since I missed it, we’re going to talk about it,” he said. “If I made it, no one would mention it.”
Scott said he wasn’t sure of the rule, but would look into it. It happens late in games all the time. Scott said it was the equivalent of an NFL coach icing the kicker by calling a timeout as the ball is snapped.
“I’ve seen it so many times, I didn’t think much of it,” Scott said. “He’s in his rhythm, about to shoot, now you take it away and reset.”
The Knicks were playing without Carmelo Anthony, Iman Shumpert, Amar’e Stoudemire and Marcus Camby, but still managed to win their fourth in a row to maintain the best record in the Eastern Conference.
On this night, however, Irving was the star. After the game, Jeremy Pargo stood on a chair in the locker room holding a towel displaying the Batman logo.
The Dark Knight rose in the Garden, but the final shot didn’t fall.
Jason Lloyd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Cavs blog at http://www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow him on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.