Kyrie Irving’s debut was a historical occasion, a 50-point night with one array of dazzling moves. It was setting up to be a 52-point night with a memorable game-winning shot in overtime.
Everyone in the building on Wednesday night knew where the ball was headed and that includes the Minnesota Timberwolves, who spent their portion of the final timeout to discuss defending Irving. During that strategy session, coach Ryan Saunders delivered a message to Josh Okogie that he would be assigned to shadow Irving.
According to Saunders, Okogie responded with a confident “You Got It”. A few seconds later, Okogie would be the answer to a trivia question as the defender who was guarding Irving when his 15-foot fadeaway at the buzzer missed.
The sequence started with Irving getting the ball off the inbounds pass just past midcourt. He took about five dribbles and on the last dribble, he attempted a spin move and headed toward the foul line.
At that point Okogie stayed in front of Irving and used his footwork to keep pace while not getting a help defender. Irving lost his footing but maintained possession even as Okogie tried to get the ball.
Irving managed to maintain possession and Okogie lost some balance while trying to go for the ball. That allowed Irving to keep the ball despite losing his footing but Okogie’s effort in trying to chase down the ball forced an off-balance shot and the shot goes long.
The buzzer sounds and play-by-play man Dave Benz says: “And the Wolves dodge a bullet” while color analyst Jim Peterson says “Unbelievable”.
“I was surprised because he lost it and I tried to dive for it,” Okogie said. “Then I was on the floor and he got the ball. I was kind of surprised how he even had the ball, how he got it really quick and got a shot off but I’m just satisfied with the final result.”
So how did all unfold for Okogie, whose Twitter handle of @CallMe_NonStop refers to his energy and defense?
“I was an island and he had all the space in the world to get a bucket,” Okogie said. “All I had to do was try to figure out a way to disrupt him a little bit.”
The disruption was the key. If Okogie was unable to use his footwork to keep pace, chances are there is no disruption and Irving gets off a clean look before a help defender appeared and might even be fouled.
The foul is the big concern besides how probable it seemed Irving would make the shot. It’s a fact noted by both Okogie and Saunders.
“It’s hard because you don’t have any help and he had 50 points,” Okogie said. “So it’s hard but luckily he was able to miss the shot and we were able to get the win.”
“Absolutely,” Saunders said of his concerns Okogie would commit a foul. “That was in the back of my head because Irving he’s an unbelievable scorer. He hads a knack for understanding situations and hey he understood the situation there. Josh did a great job staying on his feet and not lunging into him, forcing him into a tough shot.”
The big nights in Brooklyn were produced by Irving and Karl-Anthony Towns. Okogie’s 14:26 on the floor was the fourth-fewest total of the 20 players who played but his plus-22 was the highest out of anyone.
He also made the moves with his feet to get Irving off-kilter despite last appearing with 7:34 remaining in the fourth quarter.
“It’s a huge credit to him,” Saunders said. “He comes in cold. That’s one of the reasons we love Josh. He’s very good guarding isolation players and Kyrie he obviously had an unbelievable night – so tip your hat to him but we want to put a guy that we felt was going to be able to give us an opportunity to force him into a tough shot.
As for where disrupting Irving’s game-winner ranked in his brief career, Okogie couldn’t tell you. But this is the same guy who disrupted James Harden on a 3-point attempt back in February to create a viral clip.
On Wednesday, Okogie did it again, denying Irving the memorable ending in his homecoming that seemed destined to happen. As for how he was able to do it, Okogie shrugged and said:
“For me, it’s just instinct, I don’t really practice footwork. Just instinct and determination.”
Instead, he let Towns provide a playful boost about Okogie’s ability to make the defensive stand.
“If there was a cheetah out there and we said, ‘Josh go get him,’ I have more faith in Josh beating the cheetah.”
In this case Irving was the cheetah and Okogie’s effort beat him in the most important possession of an otherwise memorable debut for Brooklyn’s new star.