Pay attention to the crowd and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ bench when Kyrie Irving is about to dribble.
Irving’s bag of tricks includes quick crossovers, hesitation moves and hard dribbles that can lead to step-back or step-side jumpers. There is also his trademark baseline dribble to an athletic reverse lay-in over an always late big man or a quick pass to a wide-open teammate. Always pretty. Always unstoppable. Always creative.
And once Irving’s use of his “weapon” on the poor defender is complete, fans and his teammates are always on their feet laughing and shaking their heads in amazement as the unguardable guard glides back on defense.
“It’s definitely a weapon,” Irving said about his dribbling. “But the fact that it’s a weapon with other weapons makes it a little more dangerous by being able to understand where my dribble can get me, what it can get me out of and how much more effective it can be if I utilize it more efficiently.”
Stephen Curry, James Harden, Chris Paul and Jamal Crawford are NBA guards with undoubtedly intimidating handles. But when it comes to the best dribbler in the NBA, the name Kyrie Irving seems to come up the most.
The rest of the NBA seems to agree.
“Hands down, Kyrie has the best ball-handling skills that we have in our league,” Atlanta HawksAll-Star forward Paul Millsap said. “The way he reads defenses, the way he reads your feet, it’s unbelievable … His biggest asset is his creativity. He is one of the most creative point guards we have.”
“Kyrie has the best handle of all time,” said Houston Rockets guard Eric Gordon. “Very creative and uses different motions, as well.”
Irving is averaging 25 points and 5.9 assists per game while shooting 38.8 percent from the 3-point line for the Cavaliers this season. It’s rare for the four-time NBA All-Star to score a two-point basket or trey, or drop a dime, without using his weapon to set it all up.
Perhaps Irving’s two most notable dribbling plays came against the Golden State Warriors.
In a deciding Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals, Irving engaged in a seductive double crossover dribble from behind the 3-point line while being guarded by Curry before hesitating, dribbling once hard with his right hand to create space and launching the biggest shot of his career. Irving nailed the clutch 3-pointer with 53.1 seconds left to give the Cavaliers a 92-89 lead. Irving’s 3-pointer was the most notable shot of the franchise’s first NBA championship.
Last Christmas, with the Warriors up 108-107 with 13.5 seconds remaining, Irving patiently dribbled all the way to the low block with stellar defender Klay Thompson smothering him. After stopping on a dime, Irving dribbled once hard and low with his right hand, spun back the opposite way and drilled a game-winning jumper over the fellow All-Star’s outstretched hand. Merry Christmas, Cleveland, from Kyrie Irving.
“He is able to use both hands and he’s shifty and crafty,” Curry said. “He changes speeds to keep people off-balance. Perhaps the best way to put it into words, he has an uncanny kind of ability to go one way, stop on a dime, right to left, left to right, whichever, and still be on balance and get by you. It’s unpredictable. You just don’t know which way he is going.”
To learn how Irving fine-tuned his elite dribbling skills, you have to go to the Cleveland suburb of Independence, where the Cavaliers practice.
Once Cavaliers practice is over, requested players engage in media interviews and others head to the shower. And then there is the gym rat in Irving. With Cleveland assistant and player development coach Phil Handy always by his side, they engage in a post-practice workout that lasts about 15 to 20 minutes. Handy has Irving work on his hand speed in the dribble and the combinations that go with it. They practice on two- and three-low dribble combinations with a quick pickup for a jumper. It’s also not uncommon for Irving and Handy to get to shootarounds on the road 30 minutes early to get their workouts in, as well. The key ingredient to Irving’s handles is a very low dribble. But it takes work.
“A ton of practice, but also having an imagination that is sometimes out of my world,” Irving said. “You try things in practice in a solo session seeing defenders, putting myself in a situation that I can be able to execute in the game.”
Former Cavaliers guard Jordan McCrae has witnessed several of Irving’s behind-the-scene practice workouts and spontaneous ones that took place on the road.
“He shoots off the dribble a lot,” McCrae, now a free agent guard, said. “For him, he is putting a lot of different dribbles into a shot. Sometimes he is doing five or six moves into a shot in practice. You wouldn’t do that in a game. But it’s more for your reaction. He has so many moves that he works on all the time.
“There are times where people will try get him off the court. He will do his thing before practice and after. I’ve been with Ky before where we fly for four hours and then, when we get off the plane, he goes to the gym. For him to constantly work on his game is a testament to who he is.”
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Before games, Irving typically has a 10-to-12-minute dribbling and shooting workout with Handy about 50 minutes before tipoff. ESPN NBA color analyst Mark Jackson said during the Christmas game that he saw Irving work on his game-winning shot against the Warriors during his pregame session. Practice has basically made Irving’s weapon of dribbling close to perfect once he’s on the court for real.
“There is creativity that goes into it, meaning to change on the fly with multiple combinations, multiple moves, being able to turn my practice into my work and really just have some fun out there,” Irving said. “Being able to keep your defender in an unpredictable state is always a fun thing because you can dribble, shoot, pass … You’re able to not only make plays for yourself, but for everyone on the court.”
Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for The Undefeated. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.
CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Using both hands with equal ease in basketball is like greatness, at least according to Shakespeare.
Which is to say, some men are born to ambidexterity, some men achieve ambidexterity, and some men have ambidexterity thrust upon them.
Count Kyrie Irving among the achievers and thrust upon-ers.
DePaul coach Ray Meyer devised the "Mikan Drill" in the 1940s for the first great center, the Blue Demons' George Mikan. Parked alongside the tiny six-foot-wide lane of the era, the 6-10 Mikan scored at will with either hand, in college and in the early years of the NBA, once he got the hang of it.
The drill is now standard for big men, but point guards also use it to help them finish with a basket and not a miss.
In the Mikan Drill, players shoot both left-handed and right-handed layups, reverse layups and hooks without stopping or letting the ball bounce to the floor. It obviously requires stamina. It also develops touch.
On some shots, the ball doesn't just kiss the glass, but almost reaches basketball's sky, bussing the top of the 18-inch-high white square above the 10-foot-high rim.
Irving did the Mikan Drill. To the max.
"The angles of the backboard -- I have to use them. I'm not going over the top of anybody," said Irving. "When I was seven or eight years old, I was doing the Mikan Drill and my dad had me start doing reverses (layups). My nose started bleeding. I was so dizzy I almost passed out."
LeBron James, who also did the Mikan Drill as a boy, is still clearly Closer No. 1. But Irving is 1A.
Against Detroit, Irving became the only teammate of James other than Miami's Dwyane Wade in the Heat's loss in the 2011 NBA Finals to outscore James in a playoff series.
Irving averaged 27.5 points in the four-game sweep of the Pistons to James' 22.8.
The endowments of greatness
Teammates and fans know how hard Irving worked to get back into the lineup after undergoing surgery for a season-ending broken kneecap in 2015.
The loneliness of the long-distance shooter is a basketball stereotype. We do not accord flashy drives and showy dunks the respect of such solitary dedication, although that was the case with Irving.
Scoring around the basket is more popularly considered a result of explosive jumping and power. These are the LeBron traits, encoded in the DNA of the 6-8 superstar, refined in practice, yet still inherent in a way with which no 6-2, comparatively gravity-bound player, such as Irving, will identify.
Irving has an explosive first step and is a long strider. He can get to the rim in one dribble from near the 3-point arc. That's the LeBron increment in his game.
It all starts to become patently unfair with a body spin by Irving that makes the defender's gyroscope go all the way to "tilt," like a pinball machine pushed too far back in the day.
The hard work of greatness
The rest of Irving's finishing is made of parts patiently shaped on the lathe of practice, practice and more practice.
"I don't believe in ball-handling gurus," Irving said, when asked if he had any instructor as a boy besides his father, Drederick. "I didn't do anything like close one eye, pick up the basketball, pick up a tennis ball, or dribble two balls at once. It's a cliche, but I'd be out there alone, playing against (invisible) guys, coming up with things."
In the poetry in motion to which basketball is sometimes compared, a hesitation move is like the caesura, or break, in a line of poetry. Something emotional and dramatic often follows in a poem.
After Irving's hesitation dribble in basketball, what follows can be a burst past a lulled defender and a jack-knifing reverse layup or an off-balance shot with whichever hand can thread the ball through the clutter more effectively.
Sometimes, the final move to the rim comes on a high, hard dribble that creates the basketball equivalent of an arm-over pass rushing move in football.
At the rim, Irving's Mikan Drill mastery of angles and ball rotation convince you that fairy tales are true and that gold really can be spun from straw.
An additional element in Irving's ball-handling is a cross-over dribble that is close to an optical illusion. In the context of a great cross-over dribbler, such as that of Hall of Famer Allen Iverson or Irving, normal visual experience is almost useless. The ball suddenly and simply is in the other hand without even the courtesy of a cry of "Abracadabra!"
What this means is that the prestidigitation and legerdemain and other words that amount to hocus-pocus are the result of perspiration, not inspiration.
By the way, foul him and pay the price. Irving ranked 10th in the NBA this season, making 88.5 percent of his free throws.
"We have designated snipers," James said of the Cavaliers' 3-point-centric offense. "I am not one of them. I'm more of a tank."
Irving has better inside-out versatility than anyone on the Cavs' roster, and that includes James.
Now, the bad news for Atlanta, the Cavs' next playoff opponent: Irving has regained his 3-point touch.
He shot 84 for 261, a sub-par 32.2 percent, in the 53 games he played in the regular season after recovering from knee surgery. Against Detroit in the Cavs' hard-won four-game sweep, Irving made 16 of 34, 47.1 percent.
"He's usually around 38 or 39 percent. When you're coming back from an injury after missing games, it takes time to get your legs under you. I'm glad he's getting his rhythm at the perfect time," said Cavs coach Tyronn Lue.
Irving swished a shot from half-court at the end of the third quarter of the Cavs' 100-98 victory in the elimination game. No Piston thought he would shoot it from there. But he did.
Talk about finishing!
It broke a 78-78 tie. A shot only has to be released before the game or shot clock buzzer. It still counts if it plummets into the net after nothing but zeroes flash on the clock. With Irving, it ain't over even when its over.
It wasn't J.R. Smith's heroic shot clock beater against blanket coverage in the final minute of the fourth game, but the only more extensive range than that of J.R. is probably where the deer and antelope play.
Irving's catch-and-shoot splashdown 3-pointer from the corner against the shot clock in the third game of the series came on a play that started with 0.7 of a second on the shot clock. It expanded a five-point lead. It was the result of a brilliant out of bounds play drawn up by Lue.
Matthew Dellavedova threw an inbound pass from the corner on the baseline on a shallow angle to the opposite corner, where Irving caught it in rhythm. The Pistons' Tobias Harris, guarding Irving near the top of the foul circle, was slowed by James' back screen. No one rotated toward Irving because James then cut toward Delly's side of the court, drawing everyone except Harris to him.
Irving raced to the open corner and caught the pass. Harris closed frantically and challenged just ... barely ... too ... late. When the ball landed in the net on Irving's fadeaway three, it took the game with it.
His step-back 3-pointer is to spatial clearance from a defender what a bargain basement sale is to merchandise clearance from the shelves.
When the ball sticks
Critics will always hound Irving for monopolizing the ball. But in the Detroit series, he had 19 assists to six turnovers, a ratio of better than three to one. James' totals were 27 assists and 13 turnovers, a ratio of better than two to one. By one count, though, 17 of James' assists were for 3-pointers.
Isolation sets were part of the game plan against the Pistons when James or Irving had a match-up they could exploit, according to Lue. The Cavs used them heavily as the offense stagnated at the end of the fourth game.
Irving said of the strategy, "At the end of the day, we have two of the best closers in the game playing on the same team."
Still, there was a moment late in the close-out game, with James dribbling outside the arc in what was to be a 1-4 isolation set. James pointed to the corner, where he wanted Irving to set up for a possible drive-and-kick 3-pointer.
Irving rolled his eyes in exasperation, then moved to the corner.
Perhaps it was petulant. But go easy on the theme of individualism at the expense of collective purpose. Irving had put in the work.
Just for the fun of it, here's a video of some of Irving's all-time best: