In the 2015 postseason, the Cleveland Cavaliers lived and died by LeBron James’ performances. Even in the games that Kyrie Irving and/or Kevin Love played in, LeBron consistently took nearly 25 shots per game, and had usage rates that were off the charts. The team did not have chemistry yet, so they fed LeBron endless isolation sets.
Kevin Love’s 2015 postseason was short-lived because of a dislocated left shoulder he suffered in Game 4 of Cleveland’s first-round series vs. Boston. When he was on the floor, he spent most of his time on the perimeter, waiting for opportunities to unload threes. Irving played 13 games in the 2015 playoffs, and averaged heavy minutes; however, he struggled to find a role, averaging just 14 shot attempts and 3.8 assists.
But that was then.
Game 1 of the 2016 playoffs was a different story. The big three came out aggressive, and accounted for 17 of Cleveland’s 21 first-half field goals. That trend continued, as James, Irving, and Love combined for 81 points in the game. LeBron adopted more of a facilitator role, racking up 11 assists and taking fewer shots than his two main sidekicks.
|What A Difference A Year Makes||Kyrie||KLove||LeBron|
|2015 Playoff Minutes||36||27||42|
|2016 Playoff Minutes||38||38||41|
|2015 Field Goal Attempts||14||10||27|
|2016 Field Goal Attempts||24||22||17|
With Cleveland’s three stars playing actively, ball movement was fluid and efficient. Fewer isolation plays were run, as there were many screens, cuts, and extra passes. The Cavs had 25 assists on 39 field goals. They finished the game with four turnovers, which was less than the total number of turnovers LeBron averaged by himself in last year’s playoffs.
In the 2015 playoffs, LeBron would go into take-over mode if his team was struggling or losing. He would trust himself over his teammates, especially when the going got tough. This led to a 43.7% field goal percentage when he had Love and/or Irving active, and 41.7% overall.
On Sunday afternoon, however, LeBron trusted his teammates. Even when his squad was down by seven in the fourth quarter, he gave Irving and Love opportunities to create offense.
The result not only benefited the team, but helped James as well. The King shot an efficient 9-17, and despite playing 41 minutes, did not overexert himself. This type of trust going forward will help LeBron remain physically fresh throughout the Cavs’ postseason run.
On numerous occasions throughout the game, Cleveland would run a simple play in which Love and James set a double ball screen for Irving. By using his elite handles and quickness, Irving would get a step on his defender; Love and James would roll or pop, giving Irving several options. A style that actively involves all three players like this makes it costly to double team James.
Irving finished the game with 31 points and 6 assists while shooting 5-10 from long range. Love finished with 28 points and 13 big rebounds. James ended with an effective 22 points, 11 assists, 6 rebounds, 2 steals, and 2 blocks. It was a collaborative effort that made viewers forget about the drama that surrounded the Cavs’ starting lineup this season.
As individually incredible as LeBron is, last year proved that he cannot win a championship by himself. Irving and Love are unique offensive players, and can keep producing if they have the opportunities and confidence. With so much opposing defensive pressure being put on LeBron as he turns up the intensity for the playoffs, Irving and Love should find themselves with even more open space.
The key to a Cavs championship run is teamwork. There is too much talent on the roster for isolation plays to define the offense. Teams can collectively find ways to defend LeBron James. But when he can defer to Love and Irving to instantaneously create more offense, Cleveland becomes a nightmare to defend.
LeBron is obviously the leader, and there will be times when he rightfully commands the ball. But with Love and Irving nearly making a combined $40 million this year, it is time for them to continue making plays rather than watching them happen.
photo via llananba