Divergent paths to stardom for Irving, Nash
PHOENIX -- Two disparately manicured paths intersected Thursday night at US Airways Center.
Arriving on the road from back East was a kid who skipped lightly over whatever precious stones are used to pave the way through Duke and into the NBA. Before that 11-game cameo as college-basketball royalty, this young point guard ran with an elite high school program and into the McDonald's All-American game.
When it was time to escape the green room and shake hands with David Stern, the kid was the first in his draft class.
Still running a show out West is the crusty veteran, a positional sage who dribbled his way from Canada and into a four-year college career at Santa Clara University ... which was the only school recruiting him. He made enough of a name there to be chosen with the 15th selection in a draft that occurred more than 15 years ago.
In this showdown of old vs. new, Kyrie Irving's Cleveland Cavaliers left town with a 101-90 victory over Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns.
Before it began, the rookie said it would be an honor to play against the two-time Most Valuable Player.
"It was definitely fun going against such a great point guard," Irving said when it was over. "I've been watching him for so long, so to finally get to play against him ... it was a little surreal. But once you're out there, you're in the game."
Yeah, really in the game. Irving played like crazy, giving Cleveland a game-high 26 points (11 of 17 from the field) and six assists in a tick under 28 minutes. Nash, who doesn't exactly back down from such challenges, led the Suns with 16 points (10 of 16) and 15 dimes.
"It just shows you he is still doing the things he's done all year ... and his whole career," Irving said of Nash. "Sixteen points and 15 assists ... that's impressive."
Already making a strong case for Rookie of the Year consideration, Irving (he'll be 20 years old in March) was handed the ball and control of the offense soon after he hit Cleveland. Through 10 games, he's providing the Cavs with 16.6 points and 5.2 assists per night. Cleveland, carefully adding bricks since LeBron James took a sledgehammer to its recent past, has won a relatively impressive five times in those 10 games.
And while Nash (who turns 38 next month) continues to turn water into now-budget-friendly wine in the desert, he didn't begin to demonstrate star potential until his fifth NBA season. As a Suns rookie, Nash was part of a Phoenix point-guard rotation that at various times included Kevin Johnson, Sam Cassell and Jason Kidd and was given a scant 10 minutes per game. He used it to average 3.3 points and 2.1 assists.
Working for the Dallas Mavericks and coach Don Nelson in that aforementioned fifth season, Nash went for 15.6 assists and 5.1 assists per game.
None of these comparisons brings any guarantee that Irving will equal or exceed Nash's NBA accomplishments. But in terms of learning curves, he's taking the first one on two wheels.
"I thought he played well," Cavaliers coach Byron Scott of Irving's star turn Thursday. "What I'm usually on him about is defense -- at times, he just sort of leans into screens, and I want him to understand that he has to do a better job of defending points guards in this league and just staying competitive. But, obviously, offensively he had it going pretty good."
Irving acknowledges the upgrades needed to provide what the Cavs require defensively.
"I think I'm doing pretty well there, but I do have some lapses," he said.
Irving also has a reliable backup in veteran Ramon Sessions. Although Sessions didn't post eye-popping numbers against the Suns, he presided over the Cleveland offense for an 11-minute, Irving-free stretch during which the Cavs boosted their lead from six to nine points.
But things could have been dicey in the second quarter if Irving hadn't knocked in a dozen points and helped Cleveland build an eight-point halftime lead.
"He just kind of went to work," Scott said. "I think everybody else started to feed off of that as well."
With the Suns going under ball screens, Irving exploited the tactic and knocked down shots before Nash or point-guard caddy Ronnie Price could get to him.
"I was basically feeding off my teammates," Irving said. "I was going around the screens, taking what the defense gave me, and my teammates had the confidence in me to keep feeding me the ball and telling me to keep going ... so I did."
As the Cavaliers continue building the talent base around him, Irving will have more opportunities to return such favors.
Just like Nash.
"It was an honor to play against him," Irving said.
Michael Redd made his Suns debut Thursday and scored 12 points in a bit over 19 minutes. Redd knocked in his first two 3-pointers (3 of 7 overall) and finished 4 for 9 from the field.
"I was a little rusty, which is to be expected," Redd said. "My wind felt pretty good, surprisingly. I just got to find my game legs and game rhythm and just try to figure out the system on offense. I was trying to find my way out there tonight."