Kyrie Irving

Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports

Tomase: Kyrie Irving vs. Russell Westbrook should be classic battle of franchise players

John Tomase
November 03, 2017 - 12:46 pm
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Both stand 6-foot-3, but one is built like a free safety and the other a third-down back.

Both dominate the ball, but one is about overwhelming athleticism -- he can race past defenders, run through them, or soar over them -- while the other prefers operating in tight spaces with the precision of a jeweler and the audacity of an escape artist.

One owns an MVP award, the other an NBA title that he personally secured with a winning 3-pointer in Game 7.

On Friday night, Russell Westbrook and Kyrie Irving meet, and it should be yet another example of the tremendous theater that has made the NBA the most compelling game in professional sports.

Westbrook's Thunder host Irving's Celtics at 9:30 p.m. in a marquee battle of point guards who have undertaken surprising reinventions this season.

A year after being the Russell Westbrook Show -- a one-man act that won the explosive point guard his first MVP award -- the Thunder feature a far more balanced roster. They swindled the Pacers out of All-Star Paul George (although in fairness, Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis are playing well in Indy) and then swung a deal for Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony.

Even if Anthony is clearly on the downside, he gives the Thunder another scoring option, and Westbrook has tailored his game to the skills of his new teammates, taking nine fewer shots a game than he did last year while averaging a league-leading 11.7 assists. His scoring average has dropped from 31.6 to 19.6, but his shooting percentage is up, and the Thunder are 4-3 with wins in three of their last four.

Westbrook's transformation mirrors the one we're seeing from Irving.

Freed from playing in LeBron James' shadow, Irving is proving exactly what he meant about evolving as a player. Few would've complained if he had stepped directly into the Isaiah Thomas role and started scoring 30 a night while dominating the ball, especially after Gordon Hayward's season-ending injury.

But Irving has instead surprised us with an all-around effort that has focused on facilitating and even some defense at the expense of his offense. Irving is averaging 21.8 points on 18.3 shots, well down from 25.2 and 19.7, respectively, last season.

His 5.6 assists are exactly at his career average, but they don't tell the whole story, since the Celtics rank only 22nd in field goal percentage. Watch Irving for five minutes, and it's clear how invested he has been in finding shots for Jaylen Brown and Al Horford, in particular, but big man Aron Baynes and guard Marcus Smart, too.

So what we have is a battle between two established All-Star point guards who have nevertheless augmented their games to complement the players around them.

Westbrook will put Irving's newfound commitment to the defensive end of the floor to the test, because the defending MVP is a handful. When he builds a head of steam, the only player who can rival him is James. Irving, conversely, is a sleight-of-hand maestro, a magician who's the best ball-handler in the league. No matter how many times you've watched Uncle Drew admonish some youngblood for reaching in a Pepsi commercial, witnessing it on a nightly basis against NBA defenders is equal parts dazzling and mesmerizing.

Irving is good for three or four plays a game, easy, that make you shout in disbelief and hit the five-second TiVo rewind to confirm you just saw what you couldn't possibly have just seen. With his untucked jersey and expressionless demeanor, Irving's physics-defying drives have a shambling playground quality. For all his ankle-breaking crossovers and behind-the-back flash, though, his finishes are sublimely effortless, seemingly converted at half speed while bodies drop, revivalist-style, all around him.

He's the driving force behind the Celtics' surprising six-game winning streak that leaves them with the NBA's best record and, improbably, its best defense.

But he'll face a legit test tonight in Westbrook. One of them puts the ball on a string. The other is a human slingshot. We have no idea who'll prevail, but I'm excited as hell to watch.

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