Cleveland's unlucky streak may be over
By JONAH HALL
Kyrie Irving is a remarkable NBA player, but he's not remarkably lucky. Every NBA player is lucky in a sense. Just making the league is like winning the lottery. Being abnormally tall helps. Insane athleticism is a must. Getting exposure for that athleticism is paramount. And to reach that pinnacle of achievement, you need all of these natural gifts plus a never-say-quit work ethic. Having support from family, friends, mentors, and coaches is essential, too.
Luck, however, also manifests itself universally when it comes to injuries. The height, athleticism, exposure, work ethic, and support are all contingent on staying healthy. We like to overlook luck — mostly because we have no control over it and no real way to quantify it — but that doesn't minimize its impact.
When it comes to injuries (especially unpredictable freak ones), Irving is a remarkably unlucky 23 year old. He sustained five injuries independent of one another in the two years between November 2010 and November 2012. A toe injury limited him to 11 games in his freshman season at Duke. Despite the shortened season, though, Irving's talent, work ethic, character and franchise-star ceiling prompted Cleveland to select him with the top overall pick in June of 2011.
Kyrie's rookie season was the lockout-shortened 2011–12 campaign, and the top overall pick made an immediate impact, winning Rookie of the Year while averaging 18.5 points, 5.4 assists, 3.7 rebounds, and shooting 40% from deep.
Then, in July of 2012, at a summer practice session, Irving slapped a wall. It resulted in a broken right hand that required surgery. Once again, freakish. Once the season commenced, the injuries continued. A broken finger forced him out for three weeks.
Since then, Irving has mostly managed to stay on the court and establish his position among the league's top point guards, dare I say becoming dependable over the last two seasons — he played 71 games last year, and 75 in 2014–15. He's one of the best ball-handlers on the planet, and a clutch three-point shooter who can take over a game when he's in the zone. He can finish with either hand, from either side, spinning the ball off the glass at impossible angles like a pool shark when attacking the rim.
Over the first few months of the 2014–15 campaign, Cleveland struggled to gel as the public watched their every move. For Irving, it was an adjustment to learn how to play with Kevin Love and The Best Basketball Player in the Universe. But it wasn't until the Cavs' well-documented deadline deals that everything fell into place. In late January, Irving hit 11 of 19 threes against Portland, finishing with 55 points. Less than two months later, he outdid himself with 57 — on only 32 shots — to upend the Spurs in San Antonio.
When Kevin Love's shoulder was separated in that unfortunate incident during the first round of the playoffs against Boston, the Cavs were forced to depend on the undeniable Tristan Thompson and hope his tenacious rebounding could be relied upon. Also against the Celtics, Kyrie sprained an ankle, but gritted it out when Cleveland took on Chicago in the East Semis.
In that series, Irving was moved off the ball and played more of a catch-and-shoot role, but he remained active for all six games against the Bulls. Coach David Blatt hinted that Irving was playing through significant injuries; the damage to his right foot/ankle was causing him to compensate by putting too much weight on his left knee. In fact, during the Eastern Conference Finals, Irving visited the famous orthopedic surgeon, Dr. James Andrews, in order to get a prognosis on the tendinitis that he was developing in the knee.
In Game 1 of the NBA Finals, Irving was back to his transcendent self. It wasn't just the 23 points, or the six assists. It was the electric first-step and the four steals. It was a possible game-saving, come-from-behind block on Steph Curry.
But then came overtime. Then came the image of a crestfallen Irving limping off the court. The microphones held inches away from his person as he hid his face from sight behind a black towel. Soon after, an MRI confirmed Cleveland's worst fears. A fractured kneecap. Out for the Finals. Three to four months before basketball activities could begin again.
The city of Cleveland has never been lucky. Sports enthusiasts have been charting that misery for decades. And as the conventional wisdom went before Tuesday's Game 3, the Finals were pretty much fait accompli; the Cavs' chances were severely fractured along with Kyrie's kneecap. After all, how could Cleveland be expected to dispatch the mighty Golden State Warriors while relying on some mysteriously rugged back-up point guard with an unusual last name that sportswriters continue to misspell.
Matthew Dellavedova, who grew up in Australia before attending tiny St. Mary's College (located just miles from Oracle Arena in Oakland), went undrafted in 2013. Few believed in the 6'4 import who never averaged over 16 points per game in his collegiate career while playing in the marginal West Coast Conference.
As everyone knows, of course, in Australia, there is a vicious little wild dog called a Dingo. Their love for devouring babies, while just a tad overblown, became a pop culture trope that requires its own Wikipedia entry. Amazingly, in Game 2 of the Finals, Dellavedova ate Steph Curry up. The MVP shot an unthinkable 5-of-23 from the floor and a miserable 2 of 15 from deep. Most of those misfires came with Dellavedova violating his personal space.
So far, with the Cavaliers leading 2–1 after three games, Dellavedova's intensity has been an undeniable difference-maker. It sounds blashpemous to suggest it, but Irving's fractured kneecap may end up being a blessing in disguise. For all of Kyrie's offensive explosiveness, he's not a good defender. Dellavedova, on the other hand, has shown the ability to lock Curry down.
Surely, Dellavedova never expected to find himself playing crucial minutes in a brutally physical NBA Finals series, but is his level of play sustainable? In Game 2, he collided with fellow Aussie Andrew Bogut after releasing a floater in the lane. He limped around for a while — like a dingo — then shrugged it off and got back to plugging away. Later in the game, Draymond Green posted him up, and Dellavedova took a shot to his hip. He struggled to move for a minute, then shrugged that off too.
In Game 3, Dellavedova continued scrapping for loose balls with a passion that reminds hoops historians of former Celtic great Dave Cowens. Some players just live underneath the action of basketball's behemoths. No, Dellavedova is no John Stockton; he doesn't have the brilliant court vision, the deadly three-point shooting, or the insane handles. What he does share in common with the Jazz legend, though, is an internal drive that allows ability to exceed talent.
They say that winning is contagious, but so is playing with heart. Consider the play of Cleveland's other supporting cast members, especially Thompson and Timofey Mozgov, who have displayed genuine fearlessness in recent weeks. That level of collective determination has led to a deliberate swing in momentum in Cleveland's direction. Golden State has time to right the ship, but they'll need to pour some water on Dellavedova's fiery play if they hope to reestablish the rhythm they have showed all season long.
Then again, not if Dellavedova has anything to say about that:
Oh, there's another factor at play, too. Dellavedova is a free-agent after this season. Some guys have all the luck.
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