By Tom Withers
AP Sports Writer
INDEPENDENCE — Kyrie Irving dribbled behind his back and then behind his back again, leaving Toronto’s Cory Joseph grasping at air.
Irving pulled off a few other dizzying spins and other did-he-just-do-that moves while finishing with 27 points, five assists and two steals. He even got free for a rare breakaway dunk as the Cleveland Cavaliers overpowered the Raptors by 31 points in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Irving did a little of everything, but perhaps his most significant action came off the floor.
As Cleveland’s reserves were putting the finishing touches on the 115-84 blowout Tuesday night, raising the unblemished Cavs to 9-0 in these playoffs, Irving danced along the sideline to the delight of a smiling LeBron James, who looked like a proud older brother.
“He’s waited a long time to get back to this position,” James said Wednesday following practice. “The kid is playing some great basketball right now.”
The kid has been brilliant in his second postseason.
Irving has outplayed a group of talented point guards who haven’t been able to stay with him or stop him. He has already left Detroit’s Reggie Jackson, Atlanta’s Dennis Schroder and Jeff Teague in his wake, and unless the Raptors can come up with a defense to re-route the Cavaliers — who had nine dunks in Game 1 — from unimpeded attacks at the rim, Kyle Lowry will become Irving’s latest victim on his tornadic path back to the NBA Finals.
One of four elite guards in the NBA’s final four, Irving, whose playoffs ended last year when he freakishly shattered his kneecap in Game 1 of the Finals, has taken the scoring burden off James. He’s averaging a team-leading 24.7 points per game and at times he’s Cleveland’s first offensive option, a role James has owned but is now willing to share with his 24-year-old teammate.
Irving said he was looking forward to the conference finals matchup with Lowry, who averaged 31 points in three games against Cleveland during the regular season and torched the Cavs for 43 in a win on Feb. 26.
On Tuesday, Irving never let Lowry get started and harassed him all over the floor. Toronto’s All-Star guard, playing his second game in three days after leading the Raptors to a Game 7 win over Miami, finished just 4-of-14 from the field. He missed all seven 3-pointers and didn’t get to the free-throw line.
Part of Lowry’s struggles can be traced to having to deal with Irving on the defensive end.
The Raptors have been bouncing back throughout the postseason and Lowry expects them to do the same in Game 2 on Thursday night.
“They’re playing at a championship level right now,” he said. “LeBron is playing like LeBron. Kyrie is playing like Kyrie, and their bench played extremely well. We’ve just got to figure it out and match it, and just go out there and do things that we do. There’s always a fire if you get your butt kicked like that. You’ve got to want to win. We want to win. We didn’t just get here to be like, ‘Oh, OK. We want to win games. We want to compete.’ Our competitive nature as NBA players, as professionals, is going to be at a high level.”
The relationship between James and Irving is an interesting study, and it has taken time for them to get to this point. The stars haven’t always been aligned during their two seasons together, but they’re in sync now — a devastating 1-2 punch — and maybe on the verge of a championship.
James has pushed Irving toward greatness.
“He’s grown every single day, every single week, month, and over the course of these last two years, becoming a leader and becoming a staple of our team,” James said. “We all knew how talented the kid was and how talented he is still today, but his growth and what he demands out of all of us as the point guard, as one of the leaders of the team. That’s the best part about it.”
James and Irving shared the post-game podium following Game 1, where their similarities and differences were on public display.
They broke up like kids in a school classroom when teammate Mo Williams walked into the news conference, accidentally blocked the view of a TV camera and began asking questions.
And when the interview session ended, James, dapper in a business suit, and Irving, wearing jeans, a baseball cap and military jacket, met friends and family in an arena hallway before leaving.
James went first, but Irving wasn’t far behind.