For the Cleveland Cavaliers to come back from being down 2-0, Kyrie Irving needs to change his game — and fast.
A lot can change in a year. Last June, Kyrie Irving torched the Warriors and was huge to Cleveland erasing a 3-1 deficit. He averaged 27.1 points a night on 46.8 percent shooting for the series, and that includes 41 in Game 5 and 26 in Game 7. Irving was getting buckets from all over. He exploited Stephen Curry’s mediocre defense whenever they got matched up, but the Warriors coaching staff is smart.
The last thing they wanted was Curry guarding Uncle Drew. Instead, Klay Thompson drew that assignment because he’s bigger and an elite defender. Irving is nearly unguardable in isolation and loves to attack bigs when he comes out of the pick-and-roll. Golden State was arguably the best defensive team for the last two seasons, and they’ve done an excellent job bottling up Irving through two games. After dropping 19 on Sunday night, Kyrie’s averaging 21.5 points while shooting 40.0 percent from the floor — he’s produced, but this Warriors team is too loaded for Irving to score modestly and inefficiently. For the Cavaliers to have any shot, he’ll have to hover around 25 a night and be better than 45 percent overall. LeBron James has been sensational, and Kevin Love has also stepped up.
When you compare the numbers, Irving isn’t playing much differently from last year. He still dribbles the air out of the ball. And, yes, it’s still maddening. Cleveland got away with that in 2016 because the Warriors weren’t yet this juggernaut. Now, it’s different. According to NBA.com, (during last season’s Finals) Irving got worse the longer he held onto the ball, whether you go by touch time or dribbles:
|7+ dribbles per game||10.5||42.90%||9.6||37.30%|
|Touch time <2 seconds||6||66.70%||3.7||69.20%|
|Touch time 6+ seconds||11.5||43.50%||10.6||37.80%|
It was more consistent last year, but one thing is obvious — against a defense like the Warriors, Irving is better working off the ball. The reason his clips are so high when he doesn’t dribble is that those shots are, usually, open looks. It means the offense is moving and Irving (or anyone) is close to the basket or left alone on the perimeter. He runs into problems when trying to get cute because the Warriors have too many guys who make Irving’s life tough. The offense then stagnates, and it’s much easier to guard a team that doesn’t move.
Irving’s such a great ball handler that he shouldn’t need to make more than two moves to get by his man. If he does, that means kick it back out and run something.
There were also a couple of instances on Sunday night where the Cavaliers came down, and James didn’t touch the ball at all. That can’t happen. It’s never okay to leave the best player in the world out of the offense. I’m hopeful that this is something Cleveland addresses in Game 3 because that’s almost a free possession for Golden State. It’s not to knock the other guys, but LeBron keeps everyone on their toes because he’s an other-worldly playmaker. Irving can score, but James has the edge on creating for others.
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Sooner than later, the Cavaliers will need to get creative with their offense. No one outside of the Big Three has produced. It’s notable that J.R. Smith has just three points in 42 minutes — only Channing Frye (two in 11 minutes), James Jones (scoreless in six minutes) and Deron Williams (scoreless in 33 minutes) have fewer. Smith was an X-factor last year, and that hasn’t changed. He’s a marksman who Cleveland can run plays for to get him hot. Smith hits ridiculous shots when he’s on, and it’s in the Cavs’ best interest to start treating Irving the same. Kyrie’s small than J.R., but he’s arguably the league’s best tough shot maker, and his diminutive stature only makes it more impressive.
Irving’s most dependable offense has come from the perimeter. He’s 5-of-10 through the two games — a perfect 3-of-3 on catch-and-shoot attempts and a not-so-perfect 2-of-7 on pull ups.
This doesn’t mean that Irving becomes a glorified Kyle Korver (who also has played poorly). He’ll still need to be aggressive for the Cavs offense to be as productive as possible, but there’s nothing wrong with coming down and running some quick action to try to get an open look. If Golden State shuts it down, they haven’t wasted much clock and then can try something else to get the ball going downhill.
Irving is still going to isolate from time-to-time, and that’s fine. He’ll just have to know the situation. If the Warriors are in the midst of an extended run — don’t. That’ll only feed their defense, and it’ll be considerably easier for them to get points that way. The best time to go one-on-one would either be at the beginning of the shot clock or the end. I know I contradicted myself a bit, but switching up the offense won’t hurt Cleveland.
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Kyrie Irving became a legend after hitting “the shot” last June. He played like he wanted to show people he was better than Steph Curry; now, it’s reversed. The expectation for Irving is remarkably high now. He’s going to have to hit that benchmark on a nightly basis. The Finals aren’t over yet, but it could be very soon. Irving has all the tools to help his team extend the series, and he’ll have to alter his play a bit because what worked last year won’t work as often this time around.
The last thing Irving needs to do is become a spot-up shooter exclusively. He’s just too talented for that. It also falls on the coaching staff (and James) to change their game plan a bit to get Kyrie easier shots. Klay Thompson has been tremendous so far, and the Cavaliers haven’t made him work on a consistent basis. Once Irving nails a couple of easy ones, the basket opens up, and we’ll have games that are competitive for a full 48.
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