February 15, 2019

Two games into the 2016 NBA Finals, Kyrie Irving was a focal point for all the wrong reasons.

During Games 1 and 2, Irving shot a combined 12-of-36 from the floor and had more turnovers (six) than assists (five). With Irving as the primary defender, the Golden State Warriors knocked down 21 of their 30 field-goal attempts, helping them jump out to a 2-0 series lead over a badly overmatched Cleveland Cavaliers squad.

After running his mouth last summer and saying his Cavaliers would have beaten Golden State in the 2015 Finals had everyone been healthy, Irving found himself the subject of intense scrutiny heading into Cleveland’s do-or-die Game 3. Without an inspired two-way effort from their All-Star point guard, the Cavaliers were all but assured of falling into an insurmountable 3-0 deficit, especially with Kevin Love sidelined by the concussion he suffered in Game 2.

It took all of 12 minutes for Irving to silence his critics Wednesday evening.

The Duke product singlehandedly matched the Warriors’ first-quarter scoring output (16 points) by actively seeking out opportunities to remain aggressive on offense. Whereas he fell into the trap of dribbling the air out of the ball through the first two games—he went just 5-of-22 on shots that came after three or more dribbles and 2-of-16 on shots in which he held the ball for six or more seconds—Irving set the tone early by sprinting past a Tristan Thompson screen and pulling up for a mid-range jumper before Stephen Curry could recover:

Two possessions later, he was active off the ball, deking past Curry and opening himself up for an easy backdoor cut:

That off-ball activity was a breath of fresh air to the Cavaliers, who opened up a 9-0 lead within the first two-and-a-half minutes of Game 3. It was all part of Irving’s plan to get back on track offensively, too.

“I’m not really good when I’m not being aggressive or off the ball and not being able to get weak-side action and be ready to play on that weak side,” Irving told reporters between Games 2 and 3. “So, you know, there is a polar opposite between Game 1 and Game 2 in terms of trying to play in between and I can’t do that. That’s just—I have to just have the mindset of continuing to be aggressive, and when I’m getting downhill, that’s when it will open opportunities for me to see passing lanes and opportunities.”

According to John McTigue of ESPN Stats & Information, Irving averaged a ghastly 0.15 points per direct isolation in Games 1 and 2. After knocking down those two early buckets in Game 3, though, the floodgates opened:

Though many of those looks still came off of the same low-percentage isolations that plagued Irving in Oakland, Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue made clear between Games 2 and 3 that he was fine with such possessions from his star point guard.

“Just talking to Kyrie about attacking, attacking early on in the shot clock. Don’t let the switching make him stagnant,” Lue told reporters Tuesday. “But he’s one of the players that we have on our team that can go one-on-one, because they’re switching one through five. But he has to make sharp, quick moves. He understands that, but we need Kyrie to be aggressive. He’s a scorer, he’s a special player. He has the best handle in the NBA, so he’s able to play iso basketball. But he’s got to make quick decisions, and he understands that.”

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Irving cooled off after that first-quarter barrage, shooting 5-of-16 over the final three frames, but the damage was already done. His early outburst helped Cleveland open up a 20-point lead that it never relinquished, allowing the Cavaliers to focus more extensively on locking down Stephen Curry and Co.

Save for a quick third-quarter scoring binge, Curry was awful in Game 3, finishing just 6-of-13 (3-of-9 from three-point range) with six turnovers and two assists. Irving helped set the tone on him defensively within the first two minutes, staying glued to him after an offensive rebound and forcing his first turnover of the night:

The 24-year-old made a concerted effort to give the reigning Curry little airspace with which to operate, demonstrating significantly improved defensive focus compared to the first two games:

This is the strategy the Oklahoma City Thunder employed throughout much of the Western Conference Finals: Given referees’ disincentive to call ticky-tack fouls that could swing the course of a pivotal game, Irving and his teammates were far more physical with Curry than they were during the first two games. The ball movement that broke Cleveland’s spirits in Game 2 ground to a halt Wednesday, as Curry couldn’t orchestrate the Warriors’ offensive assault as effectively as he usually does.

A subtle schematic tweak from Lue may deserve some of the credit for Irving’s improved defensive play in Game 3. With Love out of the starting lineup, the Cavaliers didn’t seem as inclined to trap on Curry-led pick-and-rolls, instead trusting Irving and his teammates to execute seamless switches. While the execution wasn’t perfect—Curry missed a few wide-open three-point looks that he’d normally drill in his sleep—it did cut down on the number of full-scale defensive breakdowns that victimized Cleveland in Games 1 and 2.

Irving’s aggressiveness also helped draw one of the two quick fouls called on Curry toward the end of the first quarter, which relegated the two-time MVP to spectator duty for much of the remainder of the first half. He drew a second just before halftime, once again by pushing the tempo and forcing Curry into hacking him to prevent an easy layup:

It would be criminally neglectful not to mention his contribution on this dazzling alley-oop to James, too:

Despite their Game 3 shellacking of Golden State, the Cavaliers are still decided underdogs in this series moving forward. Love’s availability for Friday’s Game 4 looms large over Cleveland, as there’s a legitimate argument to be made that the Cavs are better off without him in the starting lineup. If Love makes his return and Cleveland’s starting five begins hemorrhaging points again, Irving’s Game 3 heroics could become all for naught.

The Cavaliers can’t take down this 73-win juggernaut of a Warriors team with James shouldering the grand majority of the load, as the 2015 Finals proved. For Cleveland to knock off Golden State’s dynasty in the making, Irving must carry over his sensational two-way performance from Game 3 for at least three more contests.

Unless otherwise noted, all statistics via NBA.com or Basketball-Reference.com.

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Bryan Toporek

Bryan Toporek is just talkin' about practice. He writes about the NBA at BBALLBREAKDOWN, FanRag Sports and The Step Back. He also helps curate NBAAsesets.com.

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