Before the NBA Finals began, the majority of experts picked the Warriors to beat Cleveland in a rematch of last year’s Finals. But here was the gray area. A great series from point guard Kyrie Irving could change the narrative.
Irving doesn’t have it easy on the defensive end. Not only is there MVP Steph Curry to contend with, but the Warriors are constantly moving the ball and forcing Irving to guard bigger men on the fly.
Irving did keep Kyle Lowry in check during the games in Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals, as the Raptors guard shot 32.5% from the field. Irving also amassed 11 steals in the series. However, Lowry scored 90 points in the three games played at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre, using an array of spin moves to perplex his defender. The Cavs won in part because Irving was a scoring machine during all but the Game 3 loss.
Before the rematch with the Warriors began, Irving’s recent matchups with Curry didn’t tell us much. He was able to block Curry twice during Game 1 of last year’s Finals including one memorable play in which he chased him down from behind. Curry ended the night with 26 points, but Irving nearly matched him with 23.
On Christmas Day in Oakland, Irving had a tough time from behind the arc but held Curry to 19 points for the game. Less than a month later in Cleveland, Curry dropped 35 while Irving managed only 8.
According to the metric known as Defensive Real Plus-Minus (DRPM), Irving was one of the worst defensive point guards in the league this year. Irving also had an inconsistent defensive series against Toronto. In fact, Irving has given up an effective field goal percentage (eFG%) of 59% over the postseason compared to 50% in the regular season. That reflects that Irving has struggled defending perimeter shots as well. However, there are still moments that make you think Irving can turn it on when he truly wants to. Irving also held opponents to slightly below average shooting this season according to the NBA’s tracking system. It goes without saying that he is playing with motivation after missing most of the 2015 Finals due to injury.
During Game 1 on Thursday, Curry shot just 4-15 and scored a paltry 11 points. At first glance, that makes Irving look like a hero. However, in the second half the Warrior offense attacked Irving with a variety of scorers. Shaun Livingston and Harrison Barnes racked up 10 quick points against him in the fourth quarter alone. That contributed to Golden State shooting 12-19 when Irving was closest to a Warrior shooter. At the end of the night, Curry and Thompson combined for just 20 points and Golden State still triumphed.
In Game 2, Irving was awful at his bread and butter: scoring. He missed every single three. He had one assist in the game which ratcheted up the Kyrie Irving argument: he is out for himself. Of the 14 shots he attempted, nine fell short. He had three turnovers. His 33 minutes could have been 23 minutes for what Irving gave the Cavs. His plus minus was -26.
Irving is an enigma. Great on offense, below average on defense. That he boasts plenty of offensive gifts that he can use to bounce back from tough defensive possessions is why he has been voted an All-Star.
After a career-worst 32% on three-pointers during the regular season, Irving is making 43% in the playoffs. He’s also hitting 46% of field goals in contrast to 44.8% prior to the postseason. That has helped him score 23.5 points per night while dishing out 4.8 assists. Irving did end up with 26 on Thursday, but that was boosted by 11 free throws. On Sunday, he had 10 points and didn’t get to the free throw line at all. The Warriors have played strong defense, but Irving needs to be better. Much better.
Irving is fighting against the reigning champions, but to be successful his execution will need to match his talent level. The depth of Golden State is difficult to ignore on both ends of the court. Even if Cleveland gets back on track offensively, the Warriors are creating defensive headaches for the Cavs as a whole. Having a healthy Irving allows Matthew Dellavedova to bolster the Cleveland bench instead of start. That certainly improves their roster compared to the one from last year’s Finals. However, it still might not be enough against a Warrior team that can win in so many ways.
photo via llananba