Christmas came early for the Cleveland Cavaliers when Kyrie Irving made his triumphant return to the hardwood against the lowly Philadelphia 76ers on Dec. 20. It was the first time the basketball world has seen the young point guard on the court since Game 1 of the NBA Finals when a fractured kneecap and subsequent surgery put him on the shelf for a little over six months. The 23-year-old started off rusty, missing his first five shots, but finished with 12 points on 5-of-12 shooting (2-for-2 from three) in 17 minutes. He also dished out four assists in a lopsided 108-86 win.
However, for the man known as “Uncle Drew”, the sheer joy of being back on the court trumps the final stat line, per The Associated Press.
“Kind of a long, long road, but finally getting out there with my teammates was a pleasure,” Irving said. “It feels good, just getting this one out of the way.”
While the team will play it safe and keep Irving on a minutes restriction until he shows he’s 100 percent, his reinsertion into the starting rotation is perfect timing for Cleveland. The point guard will get a chance to find his rhythm in a Dec. 23 clash with the New York Knicks, but the real showdown will occur on Christmas Day when Irving and the Cavs return to the scene of his horrific knee injury to take on the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena. Cleveland has managed to stay afloat despite a litany of injuries, starting the season 18-7 and winning its last five games, but the NBA Finals rematch will be a good litmus test to see if the Cavs can hang with the defending champs at close to full strength.
With Irving back in the fold, the Cavs have another elite scoring option on the floor and can stagger their usage of LeBron James. While James’ 36.3 minutes per game are the second-lowest of his career, it still ranks seventh in the NBA. The four-time MVP also has the third-highest usage rate in the league at 33.6 percent.
Additionally, a fully healthy Irving can compensate for Kevin Love, who got hot in November but has cooled off in the final month of the year.
Love attempted just four shots and scored 10 points in Irving’s first game back, despite playing five more minutes than his All-Star teammate. Going forward, Cavs head coach will have to find a way to get all three members of his elite core involved on the offensive end. Love should benefit more playing alongside Irving as opposed to the tandem of Mo Williams and Matthew Dellavedova because Kyrie’s ability to get to the lane will open up more opportunities outside of the paint for the sweet-shooting power forward. The duo’s unique skill-set should also allow them to become one of the league’s best pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop tandems.
In Irving’s absence, Cleveland was one of the worst teams in the league at attacking the basket, ranking 25th in the NBA with 21.8 drives per game. Meanwhile, five of Kyrie’s 12 field-goal attempts came on drives to the hoop (41.7 percent), including this pretty lay-up here.
The Cavs will also be able to run more isolation plays with Irving back. The team utilized Irving in isos 15.4 percent of the time in his debut, per NBA.com’s tracking stats. Only two other Cavs have been used in isolation more than 11 percent of the time this season: James (21.3 percent) and J.R. Smith (15.5 percent).
Cleveland already established themselves as the team to beat in the East before Irving even suited up. However, with the Cavs slowly returning to full strength, the team becomes an, even more, formidable threat to Golden State’s crown. Last summer, James was able to drag the Dubs to six games all by his lonesome in the NBA Finals. Now, he’ll finally get some help, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.