Ryan Kelly returns from injury and scores 36 points to lead Duke to a 79-76 victory over the Miami Hurricanes. That sentence in no way does Kelly’s performance justice.
One of the more frequently occurring themes in superhero films is that of redemption: a superhero who returns, new and improved, to beat the living hell out of the bad guy who had previously beaten the living hell out of the superhero.
It is one of the simplest of formulas, one of soul-searching, improvement, and overcoming one’s biggest obstacles, but it never fails to feel every bit as gratifying.
Saturday, we found ourselves watching the Duke Blue Devils take on the Miami Hurricanes, a team that had left Duke bloodied, bruised, and beaten in a 90-63 thrashing in Coral Gables back on January 23rd. A lot of experts were saying Duke, despite having the more impressive resume, didn’t have a chance. We all saw what happened to the Blue Devils last time they stepped on the court: the Hurricanes looked faster, stronger, more aggressive, and better in virtually every facet of the game. When you also take into consideration that Duke just played about as lifeless and as unmotivated of a game as possible in a loss to Virginia just a couple days before, it was completely understandable why the experts didn’t give Duke much of a shot.
Then, we learned Ryan Kelly was playing.
The news was greeted with an unbelievable level of excitement by Duke and their fans, and for good reason. I’m not entirely sure how to put into words how big of an upgrade Ryan Kelly is over Amile Jefferson and Josh Hairston, but I’ll try. It would be like if you took Batman out of the Justice League and replaced him with one of those guys who walks around downtown Los Angeles wearing a superhero outfit. There, I think that is a good enough example.
So, here we were: booting Josh Hairston and his 7.4 PER out of the lineup and replacing it with Ryan Kelly’s 25.6 PER. Even if Kelly was only around 75%, health-wise, he was an upgrade.
Kelly, however, was not 75%. He was more like 110%.
With Miami coming out strong, Duke needed an offensive force to turn to. Kelly, eager as could be to get back into the swing of things, took on the role of leader with open arms.
Kelly knocked down an open three. Kelly knocked down a floater. Kelly knocked down a long jumper. Kelly knocked down another three. Kelly knocked down another three. Kelly knocked down another three. Kelly knocked down another three.
He was like this big, strong superhero, swooping in and saving a lost and hopeless Duke team from taking another thumping at the hands of the Hurricanes. Carrying the team on his back with the strength and swiftness of a man who never missed a beat, Kelly scored 20 points by halftime, keeping the game close (Miami 36 – Duke 34) and lifting the spirits of every single Duke person, player, coach, and fan in the building.
He continued to dominate in the second half, dancing around the Miami defense like the foot injury had never happened. When he randomly wandered over to the locker room, we all feared that our superhero had broken down again, but he came back, dead-set on finishing what he had started.
And, teaming up with Quinn Cook, a reignited Mason Plumlee, and an aggressive loose cannon in freshman Rasheed Sulaimon, Kelly finished the hell out of the job.
After Duke took a commanding 75-65 lead, Miami did their best to fight back, as a good villain so often does, but the gap proved to be too much. By the time the final buzzer sounded, Duke was a 79-76 winner, a direct result of Ryan Kelly’s 36-point, 7-rebound performance. The senior shot 10-14 from the field, including 7-9 from beyond the arc, and 19-12 from the free throw line.
Looking back on it, perhaps Duke was never in danger of losing this game. Ryan Kelly never broke character, playing the role of hero all thirty-two minutes he was on the court, and I’m not sure the Blue Devils were capable of losing with him carrying them.
I’ve seen a lot of impressive performances in my years of being a Duke fan. I watched JJ Redick pour in 41 points against #2 Texas and I watched JJ Redick pour in another 40 against Virginia and I saw Kyrie Irving take over against Michigan State just a few games into his career and I saw every single one since I started following the team in the late 90′s. This was, perhaps, one of the most impressive full-game performances I’ve ever seen from a Duke Blue Devil.
When you take into account that Kelly hadn’t played in nearly two months, his performance is downright miraculous. Here you had Duke, a team that has been unbelievably underwhelming in the last few weeks, in desperate need of someone stepping up to save their hopes for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
I’m not entirely certain Kelly will be that good the rest of the season. In fact, he probably won’t be. He could go back to his 12ppg average after tonight, and that would be just fine. I mean, how big of an upgrade is that over Josh Hairston, who appears to have only gotten worse as the season has progressed?
I really think Coach K put it best when asked about Kelly after the game:
“I mean, me saying ‘spectacular’ or whatever doesn’t do his performance justice. One for the ages. Probably as good a performance as any player has had, a Duke player has had, in Cameron.”
Okay, when you look at it this way, you’d be crazy to think Kelly is going to be able to duplicate tonight’s performance on a game-to-game basis for the rest of the year. Like I said, that is fine, because Duke isn’t going to need a hero to bail them out every night.
Tonight, though, they needed one.
And tonight, Ryan Kelly was a freaking superhero.