CLEVELAND: Kyrie Irving heard the crowd revving with anticipation as he backed down Kobe Bryant midway through the third quarter. The Cavaliers led by 12 in Irving’s first game back, but most everyone at Quicken Loans Arena was focused on Irving, Bryant and the $50,000 bet the two stars made last summer.
Irving famously told Bryant “you have to defend!” in the video that instantly went viral, then Bryant went out and did just that, swatting Irving’s turnaround jumper three feet behind him.
It was a memorable moment in a memorable return game for Irving, who despite the block was otherwise sensational in the Cavs’ stunning 100-94 victory Tuesday over the reeling Los Angeles Lakers.
Teammates immediately began needling Irving, who compared the block to the time Allen Iverson and Michael Jordan clashed in a similar old-school-meets-new-school encounter. But the Cavs know what Irving means to them, and how important it was to get him back. He had 28 points, 11 assists and six rebounds in more than 38 minutes. Perhaps more importantly, he provided the steady hand in tight moments the Cavs have been missing the last three weeks.
“Defensively, I tried to take a stand,” Bryant said. “But he’s a fantastic player. Fantastic.”
Bryant was brilliant as usual for the Lakers, who have inexplicably dropped three in a row and five out of six as they continue to fumble through the season. He had 42 points and five rebounds, knocking down shot after shot despite Alonzo Gee doing his best to stay with him.
He shared a moment after the game with both Irving and Cavs coach Byron Scott, one of his mentors from early in his career. He patted Irving on the chest a couple of times before walking off in defeat.
Irving’s game has dazzled crowds and elicited respect from opponents since the day he entered the league, but never was his value more apparent than Tuesday. The Cavs held a 16-point lead at the half, but the Lakers chopped it to 65-62 in the final seconds of the third quarter. With all the momentum on the Lakers’ side, Irving stuck a 3-pointer at the buzzer to give the Cavs a little space and reclaim at least a sliver of momentum.
He didn’t match Bryant shot for shot, but he did enough at both ends to snap the Cavs’ five-game losing streak. As for the respect from Bryant, it’s part of what drives him.
“That’s my main focus, to get the respect from everybody in the league,” Irving said. “Going forward, to be one of the best. That’s the simple attitude I have going in.”
Irving and Bryant were the focus of the night, but Irving had plenty of help.
Anderson Varejao had 20 points and nine rebounds and Gee had 17 points while exerting most of his energy defending Bryant. C.J. Miles got the surprise start at shooting guard and played his best game as a Cavalier, finishing with a season-high 28 points. He made 5-of-10 3-pointers, but also drove to the basket and got to the free-throw line, which is what Scott has been waiting to see all along.
“I’m just playing hard and trying to stay within the system,” Miles said. “My teammates have been supporting me through the whole thing and helping me out. They make sure they yell at me to shoot it when they throw it to me.”
The next big test for Irving comes tonight in the second game of a back-to-back. Scott is curious to see how his legs will respond, since he didn’t intend on playing him so many minutes in his first game back. But the Cavs needed a victory, and needed their star to help deliver it.
“He just loves to play basketball. He loves the competition,” Scott said. “He likes to be put in that position of having to deliver. Just a special young man.”
Jason Lloyd can be reached at email@example.com. 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.