CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It was months before LeBron James made the chase-down block he’d later call the “defining play” of his career. And well before Kyrie Irving hit the 3-pointer over Steph Curry that would be dubbed the biggest shot in NBA history by the Wall Street Journal. And even prior to the Cleveland Cavaliers starting off their playoff run by going 10-0 en route to the first championship in franchise history.
Yes, before all that glory, the Cavs went through a stretch in late March of last season when they lost three out of six games — including a particularly embarrassing 104-95 loss at the hands of the Brooklyn Nets — and Irving responded by declaring that all was just fine in The Land.
“Everything surrounding our team, it’s just crazy to think that we’re still in first place and we’re still the team to beat, honestly,” Irving said at the time. “Regardless of what anybody else says of what we need and what we don’t need and what we need to get better at … I feel like we’re the team to beat … I have a lot more confidence than I think anyone realizes in our team and what’s going on in our locker room.”
However foolhardy his statement might have seemed at the time, Cleveland’s ensuing charge proved Irving to be prophetic.
And here the Cavs found themselves in March a year later — losers of six of their last 10 games prior to Friday’s 112-105 breakthrough against the Charlotte Hornets — with things seemingly going sideways again following a particularly embarrassing loss to the Denver Nuggets this week. And Irving came in with the fire extinguisher once again.
“It just echoes around the same statement of kind of let the world go crazy, and then we figure it out internally and we go from there,” Irving told ESPN on Friday. “That’s really all it comes down to: not letting anyone else dictate what are the things that we need to do and improve on. And then going out and just doing it.
“With us, we have a very close-knit group, a great culture, and we’ve just got to stick to it and understand that when it all comes down to it, as professionals we’ve got to raise our play and just become better. But every journey is different. This team’s run [leading up to the playoffs] and season have been totally different. It’s shaping out to be different, and it will continue to be. But we’ve just got to see where the answer lies and just go find it.”
What the Cavaliers found Friday was an early seven-point deficit to the plucky Hornets that Irving cut down by sparking a quick 5-0 run — assisting on an Iman Shumpert jumper and hitting a 3 of his own — to settle the game down and let Cleveland climb back in it.
Irving finished with 26 points and seven assists, extending his streak of games with at least 20 points to a career-best 20. Over that stretch, while Cleveland has taken its lumps, Irving has taken his game to another level — 28.6 points and 5.6 assists on 49.4 percent from the floor, 40.1 percent from deep and 93.4 percent from the line.
While the outside world, as Irving refers to it (we’ll refrain from making a flat-world joke), lost its mind over Cleveland looking ragged with the playoffs approaching, he kept believing.
“Just reality,” Irving told ESPN. “A realization that putting this team together, it’s not going to come together as fast as everyone thinks it is. We have a lot of pieces. We have a lot of talent. We’re probably the most talented team in the league, by far, with just the pieces that we have.
“But it takes a lot more to integrate players, integrate plays, schemes and everything else than just us being on the road together and not necessarily having all the practice time. But practice is very valuable to us, and when we get a chance to be very detailed, we’re a better team. So until then, we’re just going to continue to try to learn on the run and be there for one another and just be consummate professionals.”
A game after allowing Denver to shoot 53.1 percent from the floor and 42.3 percent from 3, Cleveland held Charlotte to 42.2 percent from the floor and 26.3 percent from 3. Sure, the Hornets are a lesser opponent than the Nuggets. But it was a professional response, as Irving hinted it would be.
With that in mind, his reaction to Cavs coach Tyronn Lue’s idea that his team is being pushed by the Boston Celtics, who are just a game behind Cleveland for the No. 1 spot in the East, was predictably defiant.
“Obviously you have to pay attention to what’s going on out there, especially in the standings, but our focus has always been internally, and what we have to fix internally,” Irving said. “No disrespect to any other team in the league, but when we’re playing at a high level, when we’re focused and we’re dialed in, we’re a tough team to beat. So we’ve just got to come in with an even better focus.
“Tonight wasn’t even our highest focus. We’re gearing up for the playoffs, but we’re not near the kind of playoff atmosphere for us right now. But we’re getting there. And I’m happy with it.”
And Cavs fans will be overjoyed in a few months if his confidence proves to be well-placed.