CLEVELAND: The most riveting part of the night should have been the game’s final play, when Kyrie Irving backed down Norris Cole in the final seconds and was stripped in what became a 96-95 Miami Heat victory.
But Irving’s peculiar behavior after the game quickly became just as interesting as another loss in a season filled with them. While the rest of the players lined up to hand selected fans their jerseys and shoes as part of Fan Appreciation Night, Irving immediately sprinted off the court at the buzzer and into the locker room. Irving’s quick exit left a staff member to scramble back to the locker room and gather a jersey and pair of Irving’s shoes to be handed out by someone else.
Coach Byron Scott said he thought Irving was injured on the game’s final play and a team spokesman announced in the locker room just prior to Irving meeting with reporters that he had suffered a bruised right heel. Irving acted surprised upon hearing that.
“That’s what I have? Oh, when was someone going to tell me that?” Irving said. “I’m hurt again? Damn. How long am I going to be out, 4 to 6 weeks?”
Asked when he was injured, Irving said he was fine.
“They said I have a bruised heel, but I’m fine,” he said. “I felt it in the first half. Felt something in my heel, but I’m OK.”
He was healthy enough to play 36 minutes, but he couldn’t stick around five more to participate in the festivities celebrating the home finale. Asked why he ran off the court so quickly rather than stick around to hand out his shirt and shoes with everyone else, Irving said he wanted the medical staff to check out his foot.
In an exhausting season filled with collapses and unexpected twists, this was simply one more for the memory book.
The Cavs had a chance to win the game at the buzzer when Irving received the inbounds pass with 13.9 seconds left and dribbled toward the left side of the lane. But when he spun left and started to go up for a shot, Cole – previously a Defensive Player of the Year in the Horizon League – stuck his hand in and cleanly knocked the ball out before Irving could get a shot up.
Cole had 16 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists, falling one assist shy of his first career triple-double. The Cleveland State product missed two free throws with 13.9 seconds left, which allowed the Cavs to call a timeout and give Irving the chance to win it at the buzzer. But he made up for the missed free throws with the game’s biggest defensive play.
“We had our chance,” coach Byron Scott said. “Norris Cole just made a great play.”
The Heat were playing without their Big Three, including LeBron James, who made the trip but did not dress. They didn’t need James, Chris Bosh or Dwyane Wade to beat Cavs team that stumbled to a final record of 14-27 at home.
Irving had 16 points and 8 assists. He shot just 3 of 12 through the first three quarters, but shot 4 of 7 and scored nine points in the fourth. But it was the final shot that stung the most.
“He made a good defensive play,” Irving said. “I had space. I spun off and had some space to shoot a pull-up jump shot, but I took one extra dribble trying to get him off-balance. But his hand was there and it was a good defensive play.”
It’s debatable what was hurting Irving more at that moment – his heel or his ego. It harkens back to what Scott said prior to the game when asked if Irving has the capability of being a leader.
“I see it at times. Over the course of a long season, it comes and goes,” Scott said. “That’s where youth comes in. I think he definitely has it. It has to come out six, seven straight months. You can’t take a day off.”
Now the microscope on Scott will continue to sharpen over the next couple of days. The Cavs conclude the season Wednesday at the Charlotte Bobcats, after which time Scott’s ultimate fate will be decided.
An almost defiant Scott said after the game he intended to be back next season.
“I am going to be back to coach them next year,” Scott said.
Asked if he had been reassured of that, Scott said, “I’ve got a year left on my contract, that’s how I figure it, unless I’m told differently. But that’s how I approach it.”