Kyrie Irving adds another identity in Game 2: Uncle Jrue

Kyrie Irving has multiple identities. Hela, his given name in Lakota, which means “Little Mountain.” There’s also his movie character, Uncle Drew. And, of course, he’s established himself as an absolute trickster with a basketball, able to get around anyone or anything to create a shot for himself.

But he took on an entirely different role for the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday night, and it’s a big reason their second-round best-of-seven series with the Oklahoma City Thunder is now tied, 1-1. 
Let’s call this version of Irving, Uncle Jrue, a defensive stopper and set-up man in the mold of the Boston Celtics’ five-time All-Defense point guard, Jrue Holiday. 

Irving, who has a career playoff scoring average of 23.5, only had nine points in the Mavericks’ 119-110 win. The last time he was kept to single digits in a playoff game he was with the Boston Celtics, getting blown out by the Milwaukee Bucks. And it wasn’t for lack of trying to score against Milwaukee — he took 18 shots, making only four.

But with coach Jason Kidd looking for his team to play faster and lean less on the scoring of his two biggest stars, Irving and Luka Dončić, Irving only took eight shots in Game 2 and focussed on collapsing the Thunder defense and whipping the ball out to an array of Dallas three-point shooters not named Luka. Result: after going 12 for 35 from beyond the arc in their 117-95 loss in Game 1, the Mavs made 18 of 37 in Game 2. That’s 14.3 improvement, percentage-wise, and that’s huge. Especially since it flipped the advantage in that department, Oklahoma City going from outscoring the Mavs in Game 1 by 12 with three-pointers and getting outscored in Game 2 by 24.

Irving finished with 11 assists, tying his career playoff high, last set, again, five years ago as a Boston Celtic.

But his defense was equally impactful — and out of character, at least his previously established ones. Irving said in recent weeks that, at 32, he has committed himself to being a better defender because affecting the game at both ends is the mark of truly great players. (Better late, than never.) He finished with two blocked shots and two steals and countless deflections and contested shots. 

“Ky is probably not labeled as a defender but here of late he’s playing defense at a high level,” said Kidd after the win. “He’s taking the challenge. I thought tonight he set the table offensively for a lot of guys, but I thought his defense was really, really good and we’re going to need that as we go forward.”

There was one other major shift: instead of the Mavs’ most indispensable role player, PJ Washington, getting into early foul trouble, as he did in Game 1, it was a member of the Thunder’s supporting cast, Lou Dort, who was hampered by early whistles. Washington still fouled out of Game 2 with more than two minutes left, but not before scoring 29 points and grabbing 11 rebounds. He was a big beneficiary of Irving’s largesse, knocking down 7 of 11 three-pointers. As Dallas’ only stretch big man, being limited to 25 minutes in Game 1 with foul trouble played a big role in OKC’s lopsided victory. 

Dort, the primary defender assigned to Doncic this series, picked up three first-half fouls, including two in the first quarter. Did it make a difference? Doncic scored 16 of his 29 points in the first quarter on 75 percent shooting. Conversely, Dort didn’t pick up his fourth foul until the final 90 seconds of the third quarter and Doncic cooled considerably, missing 4 of his 5 shots and only scoring four points.

Overall, though, the Thunder were not nearly as energetic defensively as they were in Game 1. Their defensive rotations were slow, which resulted in a lot of good looks from long range for Dallas, and were out-rebounded overall and on the offensive glass. 

“Across the board they were a little too comfortable all night,” said Thunder point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. “You could kind of feel it from the way the game started. They were ready to go, they were physical. We’ve got to be better from the jump.”

Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has written two books, “Rebound,” on NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with young onset Parkinson’s, and “Yao: A Life In Two Worlds.” He also has a daily podcast, “On The Ball with Ric Bucher.” Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.

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