By Eric Apricot
A major part of any team’s scheme for defending the Cleveland Cavaliers is how to contain Kyrie Irving. By reputation and highlight count, Kyrie Irving is one of the most skilled isolation scorers and pick and roll ball handlers in the NBA.
Statistics agree: NBA.com shows that his points per possession on isolation plays from the 2016-2017 regular season is 1.12 points per possession (PPP), good for third out of 86 frequent isolation players. For context, other Finals players’ ranked high are Stephen Curry (fourth), Kevin Durant (eighth) and LeBron James (29th) at 0.97 PPP.
For scoring out of the pick and roll, Irving isn’t quite at the top, but still highly ranked (26th out of 134) with 0.96 PPP. Durant is 20th, James is 24th and Curry is 34th. It’s impressive that Irving keeps up his efficiency despite high usage, isolating at the sixth highest rate (21.4 percent of possessions) and shooting in the pick and roll often (34 percent).
So on the one hand, it’s true that Kyrie Irving is an elite isolation scorer and a very good pick and roll ball handler. On the other hand, Ryan Knaus calculates that the Warriors are good defenders of isolation plays, giving up (0.87 PPP), and even better at stopping the pick and roll ball handler (0.83 PPP). So Irving’s preferred attack modes are relatively low efficiency and, in general, the Warriors will invite him to take these kinds of attacks.
The Warriors base defense will switch most pick and rolls, and Irving as a rule will turn these switches into isolation plays. Both teams accept these terms of engagement, so overall, the Cavaliers’ half-court plays for Kyrie turn into selecting the worst isolation defender on the floor for the Warriors, having them screen for Irving to draw the switch, then attacking them in isolation.
Because these plays turn into baseball-like one-on-one attacks, the Warriors have tuned their defensive scheme to be defender specific. The scheme can be described as a base defense and special cases for Draymond Green, Zaza Pachulia and JaVale McGee.
The Base Defense
Some people call this scheme an overload or shadow. I like to call it a goalie scheme. Basically, whoever guards Irving goes over the screen, whoever is being attacked plays Kyrie to funnel him to one side towards a designated help defender, the goalie, who keeps a foot in the paint ready to contest the drive at the rim. This is similar to the defense the Warriors used on LeBron James last year, and which they use regularly to guard Russell Westbrook and James Harden.
Here’s a basic example where Kyrie attacks Curry. Who’s the goalie?
JaVale McGee is the goalie lurking at the edge of the weakside paint. In this case, Andre Iguodala knocks the ball free.
Here’s another one, where Kyrie attacks Durant. Who’s the goalie?
In this case, Draymond Green lurks in the paint to contest Kyrie at the rim. You can see that when Green contests, another Warrior has to rotate (in this case Shaun Livingston missed the rotation), otherwise Draymond’s original man is in good position to get offensive rebounds.
If the goalie defense is working, Irving may opt to not drive into a forest of arms and instead pull up for a jumper. Here, he attacks Klay Thompson.
The goalie is Draymond again, whom you can see lurking in the paint. Kyrie just shoots over the top and the Warriors will take a long contested midrange pull-up from Irving every time.
And here, even the great defender Andre Iguodala gets a goalie, though he ends up not needing Green.
Whenever Draymond Green is on the floor, he is usually the goalie, being the best defender. Kevin Durant sometimes serves as the goalie, but he is not as relentlessly locked in on defense and sometimes loses focus. Here’s an example. Watch the body language of the players after the play.
At the start, you see Green pointing to signal Durant to be the goalie. Even Ian Clark jumps over for a second to play goalie until he thinks Durant has got it. Durant instead turns his back on the play to locate Kevin Love. In the meantime, Curry funnels Irving towards the basket, and he makes a layup two feet behind Durant’s head. Even though the Warriors were up 20 with under five minutes to play, you still see Curry throwing his hands in exasperation and Green throwing up arms of confusion, complaining to Durant.
Draymond Green on Kyrie
Here are three plays where Kyrie attacked Draymond Green with Klay Thompson as the original defender. See if you can pick up the scheme.
Like the goalie scheme, Klay Thompson tries his best to fight through the screen and when he can’t, goes over it. In the meantime, Draymond Green switches to Irving below the level of the screen to contain the drive. Here, Green does NOT have a goalie. In the last two clips, Irving has to finish very difficult layups, but he does score. In the Portland series, C.J. McCollum showed he could drive past Draymond Green regularly and finish with sharp angle bank shots and Irving shows here he can do the same.
If Irving begins to hurt the Warriors isolating on Green, they may start using a goalie for Green as well.
Zaza Pachulia on Kyrie
Pachulia can use bulk, position and high pain tolerance to fight attackers in the post, though his shot blocking is below average. But most importantly, he is slow and regularly attacked in space. For instance, early in the game, Irving uses Pachulia as a Georgian traffic cone on his way to a layup.
So, here is the Warriors’ scheme altered to fit Pachulia:
You can see that Draymond Green, though alert, does not have a foot in the lane as a goalie. Instead, Pachulia and Irving’s defender spring a trap. Here, they force Irving to pass to Tristan Thompson on the short roll. Thompson makes the right pass on the 3-on-2, but it’s slow, which lets Pachulia lumber back to contest Love’s corner 3-pointer.
Here’s another example where Irving ends up sealing Curry off in the post and is about to have a window to attack Pachulia at the rim. So using the same principles, you get this play:
Pachulia comes over to back up Curry (once Green points, grabs him and shoves him towards the play), then immediately double teams Irving, who almost squirts out of the trap in the corner until Green grabs the loose ball and saves it with an effective-but-risky pass.
Why does Pachulia have his own double-team scheme? The Warriors may consider him too slow to funnel a driver towards the goalie. Or, the Cavaliers may tend to play lineups where Zaza is already guarding the only non-shooter, so Draymond Green can’t easily help. (For instance, in both clips above, Green is marking Kevin Love spotted up int he left corner.
JaVale McGee on Kyrie
Finally, JaVale McGee, as is often the case, is in a strange category of his own. When Kyrie attacks him, he appears to be left to single cover Kyrie.
On the one hand, McGee is a decent shot blocker and he had to hang on while Green was out for early foul trouble in the first. On the other hand, in the three clips, Kyrie gets
(1) a hockey assist for a huge LeBron dunk — more Curry’s fault than McGee’s.
(2) a difficult sweet layup, and
(3) an open pull-up jumper
You could argue McGee didn’t play these that badly, but he also didn’t come back into the game, so Coach Mike Brown might not have been convinced by these arguments.
There seem to be openings to exploit in this scheme. First, the Cavs could do the same counters they run when the Warriors played a goalie defense on LeBron (the abandoned man flashes to the basket, or sets flare screen for a shooter). Second, if they know Pachulia is going to double team, they can plan to have the screener more prepared to run the man advantage from the short-roll.
But for Game 1, the scheme seemed to work. Kyrie Irving shot 10-for-22 for 24 points and was -17, with a number of points coming on play breakdowns instead of out of a half-court set.
The Cavaliers need Irving to break free the bonds that hold the Warriors’ defense together. How he adjusts could determine how long the series goes.