‘These young kids, they have no fear’: Kyrie Irving, the last of the NBA playoffs’ old guard


AS THE SECONDS ticked away inside Dallas’ American Airlines Center, Kyrie Irving and James Harden approached each other and exchanged the customized handshake they created during their brief stint together as Brooklyn Nets teammates before hugging.

Irving had just put the finishing touches on the Dallas Mavericks‘ first-round series, scoring 28 of his 30 points in the second half of the Game 6 closeout victory over Harden’s LA Clippers. As the Mavs moved on, a few of Irving’s longtime peers started their summer early, as a Clippers team built around 30-something-year-old stars Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Harden was eliminated.

And with that, the older generation of NBA superstars was gone, bounced from the postseason before the second round started — with one exception.

Irving, a major reason the Mavericks are two wins from the Western Conference finals, remains standing. In fact, there are a dozen active players with at least seven All-Star selections. Irving is the only one whose team advanced out of the first round.

That realization hit Irving, 32, as he went through his postgame routine after closing out the Clippers. The Los Angeles LakersLeBron James and the Phoenix SunsKevin Durant, Irving’s co-stars at previous stops, had already been sent home. The Golden State WarriorsStephen Curry, Irving’s three-time NBA Finals foe, didn’t make it out of the play-in tournament.

“I’ve been competing with those guys for so long and seeing them every year,” Irving told ESPN. “It’s been pretty much our generation running the Finals, the Eastern Conference finals, Western Conference finals. [The shift has] just been quick. I don’t want to say I know that those guys are looking at the light in the tunnel. I can’t speak for them.

“But to see this newer generation come in and to see how it’s played out, I’m excited. It keeps me motivated and inspired to continue to lead my generation, because I was the youngest of that generation watching them.”

THE NBA PLAYOFFS, and the West bracket in particular, are being dominated by superstars who have yet to even hit their prime.

The Mavericks-Oklahoma City Thunder series features a pair of 25-year-old MVP finalists: Irving’s teammate Luka Doncic and Oklahoma City’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Minnesota TimberwolvesAnthony Edwards, 22, has ascended into the upper stratosphere of superstardom as arguably the most dominant player of the postseason so far.

“These young kids, they have no fear,” Irving said. “When you have that much talent and you have no fear, the world is yours.”

Irving, on the other hand, has a perspective that only comes with experience. He has won an NBA championship, hitting the Game 7 go-ahead 3-pointer for the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2016 Finals. And Irving has endured chaos, some of which he acknowledges he created, as he bounced from Cleveland to the Boston Celtics and the Nets before landing in Dallas before last season’s trade deadline.

The Mavs were able to acquire Irving at a price significantly lower than is typically paid in trades for stars because the off-court controversies during his Brooklyn tenure that deflated his value. But he’s beloved throughout the Mavs organization, where Irving’s poised leadership and character are raved about almost as much as his skill set. He’s a finalist for the league’s J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award due to his varied philanthropic efforts. And Irving’s is the voice that resonates the loudest in the Dallas locker room.

“There’s no panic. There’s calmness,” Mavs coach Jason Kidd said between series. “He’s under control. His tone when he speaks to the team is confident. It’s great to have someone like that in your locker room this time of year.”

That calm is being tested during the West semifinals series that is even entering Wednesday’s Game 5 in Oklahoma City. The Thunder are loading up defensively against Doncic and Irving, forcing the tandem to play in traffic and holding Dallas’ star duo to a combined 37.0 points per game. Irving has twice been held to single-digit scoring totals in the series, which had happened just twice in his playoff career. Irving preached to his teammates, and reminded himself, after Monday’s Game 4 loss to “stay poised and stay peaceful” during the ups and downs of the series against the West’s top seed.

“It’s a competitor’s dream,” Irving said after Gilgeous-Alexander carried the Thunder to a 100-96 win to tie the series.

Irving, who averaged 25.6 points, 5.0 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game for the 50-win Mavs during the regular season, smiled when asked after the first-round clincher if he felt like he was still in his prime. “I’m starting it,” he said.

He has joked about being the “Benjamin Button” of the NBA, aging in reverse. He dunked six times this season, the most of any year in his career, matching the total of his entire 143-game Brooklyn stint. He still dazzles with his speed with the ball in his hands, such as on a one-man fast break against the Clippers, when he put on a ballhandling clinic while racing down the floor before executing a difficult lefty finish.

One opposing scout ranked Irving, who readily admits being picked on defensively for much of his career and says he enjoys that facet of the game now, as the Mavs’ second-best on-ball defender behind forward Derrick Jones Jr.

According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Irving ranks second in the NBA in deflections (31) and defensive loose ball recoveries (eight) during the playoffs. Opponents have shot 38% (33-of-87) with Irving as the primary defender this postseason and are averaging only 0.72 points per direct isolation against him, per Second Spectrum. He has been the primary defender on 15 turnovers, tied for the sixth-most by any player in these playoffs.

“He’s young, man,” Doncic said with a grin before the series opener in Oklahoma City. “He’s still young.”

IRVING SERIOUSLY BELIEVES that he’s never been better suited for a playoff run.

He openly discusses his “journey,” especially connecting with his Native American heritage, thanking his therapist in a postgame news conference after the Mavs’ Game 6 win over the Clippers.

And Irving is certain that he’s in the best physical condition of his career, because he’s learned how to be diligent about taking care of his body. For instance, Irving goes through his extensive individual pregame workout three hours before tipoff to give him time to get massages and other work on his body. Early in his career, Irving said he’d arrive at the arena maybe 90 minutes before a game.

“I’ve been waiting, waiting, waiting for this time of my career to be in my 30s, mastering the game mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally, IQ wise, being through tons of battles, failing on the public stage,” Irving said. “I’ve gone through my fair share of losses to be able to understand what it takes to win and also appreciate the times like this when you have a special team around you and guys that are selfless.

“You don’t want to take it for granted, because as a competitor, especially in this business, it doesn’t come around often. It’s not like you’re guaranteed to make it to the Eastern Conference or Western Conference finals every year. And me as a young person, I think I took that for granted.”

Irving, who is in his 13th season, acknowledged that thoughts occasionally cross his mind about how much longer his NBA career will last. In the next breath, he noted how much medical and exercise technology has advanced, helping stars extend their careers into their late 30s or perhaps beyond.

“Hey, I see guys getting better at 39, though,” Irving said. “I see somebody getting better at 39.”

That, of course, is a reference to James, who Irving starred alongside during the Cavaliers’ Final runs before requesting to be traded away from Cleveland.

James publicly pleaded to be paired with Irving again last season, then expressed his disappointment when the Mavs, not the Lakers, traded for him. Los Angeles prioritized continuity over pursuing Irving as a free agent over the summer, when he re-signed with Dallas on a three-year deal worth $120 million plus incentives.

But Irving isn’t spending any energy wondering what could have been. He appreciates the opportunity he has and the possibilities to come.

“No time to have regrets, man,” Irving said. “I’m 32 years old now and that time has come and gone. I’ve been able to make peace with it and also understand that I needed those times to happen in order to understand where I am now and be me as a person. So this business will play tricks on you mentally if you continue to look in the past and who you could have been and what could have been.

“I found myself doing that pretty often, but now it’s just looking forward, man. The future’s beautiful.”

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