CLEVELAND — Kyrie Irving clapped his hands as he walked to the middle of the locker room unaware of the surprise his teammates had in store for him.
As Irving untucked his jersey, LeBron James and the rest of the Cavaliers crowded around the star point guard before dousing him with bottles of water and some ice. All of the Cavs then danced wildly in a circle.
History deserved a celebration.
Irving scored a career-high 55 points, the most in the NBA this season and a Quicken Loans Arena record, on Wednesday night as the Cavs won their eighth straight, 99-94 over the Portland Trail Blazers despite playing without an injured James.
With James sidelined with a sprained right wrist, Irving made a team record 11 3-pointers, all 10 of his free throws and dropped a go-ahead jumper with 6.4 seconds left that, to this point, is his defining moment as a pro. There are sure to be others to come.
Irving, who scored 38 on Tuesday in Detroit, was unstoppable.
“I’ve seen a lot of great performances,” Cavs coach David Blatt said. “But something quite like that? No. I have not seen that and I’ve been coaching a long time.”
Irving didn’t start too well. He missed his first seven shots before heating up and scoring 11 points in the final 1:39 of the first quarter. He had 28 points at halftime, 39 after three quarters and he scored 16 in the fourth to break the arena’s single-game record set by Allen Iverson on Jan. 6, 2001. Remarkably, Irving scored 43 more points than his next closest teammate.
And, that he did it with James reduced to little more than one of 20,000 witnesses made it that much more impressive.
After the Trail Blazers tied it 94-all on two free throws by LaMarcus Aldridge with 27.6 seconds to go, the Cavs called a timeout to set up a play. There was only one choice: Give the ball to Irving.
Dribbling on the right side, Irving patiently walked the ball toward Portland’s Nicolas Batum, stepped back and drained his 11th 3-pointer, sending the Q into a state of chaos. As he walked slowly toward halfcourt, James rushed onto the floor, jumped and greeted Irving with a chest bump. Irving said the moment was overwhelming.
“I was really, really emotional at that moment,” said Irving, likely to be named an All-Star reserve on Thursday. “But the only thing I was worried about was getting that stop.”
Portland had a chance to tie, but Damian Lillard was way off with a 3-pointer from the corner and the rebound was grabbed by Irving — who else? — and he was fouled. He stepped to the line with 2.1 seconds left, and with chants of “M-V-P” cascading down from the arena’s upper deck and James standing on the sideline with his hands on his head in disbelief, Irving knocked down two free throws to crown his monumental night.
“It was a total team effort,” Irving said after he had been soaked by his teammates.
James knew better. The four-time MVP politely declined to speak to reporters, saying the focus should be only on Irving.
“This is his night,” James said.
No doubt, though James later weighed in on Twitter, posting: “Just watched live one of if not the one greatest performances by a person and he happen to be my teammate/runningmate/brother (at)KyrieIrving!!”
Irving was at his best at the end of quarters, scoring Cleveland’s last 11 points in the first, the final eight in the second and third and 10 of the Cavs’ last 12.
“It was a great performance,” Blazers coach Terry Stots said. “The great ones do that every once in a while.”
Only James, who scored 56 at Toronto in 2005, has scored more points in a game for the Cavaliers than Irving.
James could miss another game or two with the wrist injury he sustained in Detroit when he fell hard after trying to block a shot. James reached out with both arms to brace his fall and said afterward he was scared after breaking his left wrist on a similar play while in high school. The team said an MRI revealed the sprain and that James is doubtful for Friday’s game against Sacramento.
Until he’s ready, Irving can carry the load.
After dressing and speaking to reporters, Irving walked slowly down the hallway outside Cleveland’s locker room. He stopped to shake hands with several security guards and ducked into the team’s family lounge to share some hugs and kisses. He then headed toward the exit but not before several fans stopped him to exchange high-fives and well-wishes.
“Nice game, Kyrie,” one of them said.
“Thanks,” Irving said. “Good night.”
No, this one was great.