The Warriors still have no answer for the ever-improving Kyrie Irving
When it came to the Warriors and Cavs, the talk about the Big 4 -- prolific and relentless -- was correct.
Only the Big 4 that turned the outcome of the Christmas Day matchup of the NBA's two best teams wasn't the Warriors' combination of Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green.
No, it was the fourth quarter -- specifically the final four minutes.
The difference in the Cavs' 109-108 was simple: Kyrie Irving showed up in the critical stages of the game when Durant and Curry didn't.
And it was that kind of performance from Irving -- prolific and relentless -- that means that the Warriors, with all their talent, won't be able to walk to an NBA title.
Irving was having a bad shooting afternoon heading into the fourth quarter — he was getting the looks he wanted, but they just weren't falling. Irving entered the final frame 5-of-16 from the floor with 11 points. Still, despite his own struggles getting shots to fall and the Cavs' 14-point deficit in with 9:34 to go in the fourth quarter, Irving remained engaged on the defensive side of the court and continued to facilitate his Cavaliers' teammates -- a clear sign of the young point guard's continued maturation.
Irving helped the Cavs cut the Warriors' lead to 8 with a 3-pointer with 7:34 left in the contest, and then LeBron entered the contest.
When the King enters a game with the intensity that Sunday's contest held, it forces his teammates to find an extra gear.
Irving, despite his struggles in the contest, was already there.
Irving and James found an understanding last year in the playoffs -- one that wasn't readily apparent in the duo's first two regular seasons together.
Irving began to give LeBron the extra gear he demands; LeBron began to trust the preternaturally gifted scorer to make the right play in the clutch.
That understanding led to the Cavs' 3-1 comeback in the 2016 NBA Finals and Irving's title-winning 3-pointer.
Sunday, it gave us Irving's full-court isolation rush and 13-foot game-winning, turnaround fadeaway jumper on Thompson, who was playing impeccable defense.
No one can match LeBron man-for-man, but the same can be true for an engaged Irving on the offensive end. In a game like Sunday's that had all of the intensity of a playoff matchup, a contest can turn into a two-man game and while the Warriors might be the only team that can match Cleveland's 1-2 punch, the counter-jab was nowhere to be found.
A no-call didn't turn the contest. Nor did the referees' baffling decision to review a clear shot-clock violation in the final seconds of the contest, giving the timeout-free Cavs a chance to huddle before the game-winning shot. Nor was it LeBron, the constant of all constants.
The difference, as it was in last June's NBA Finals was Irving and his ability to play his best when the game is its tightest -- the moments Irving's game was built to thrive in.
Kyrie didn't need to raise his game to match LeBron's level, despite not having his best contest, and the Warriors -- even with four of the best players in the NBA, only saw one rise up against them, Draymond Green.
It was Game 7 all over again, and until the Warriors find a way to match LeBron and Kyrie's level in the game's critical moments -- the whole world knows they have enough talent to do so -- the Cavs will continue to have the upper hand in the rivalry.