Ludicrously effective but eventually predictable
For the majority of game three of the NBA Finals, Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving was ludicrously effective. I don’t want to say brilliant, because, in taking some of the shots he took, the margin between “brilliant” and “shot his team out of the game” was extremely small. A lot of it was not optimum strategy and Irving toed that line more than should be desired. But those shots went in, and Irving and Cavaliers were on the right side of the margin.
Time after time, Irving went at whoever was defending him on the perimeter and took to the basket. Occasionally, he would pull back for the jump shot (shooting 0-7 on threes, often against the stifling length and pressure defence of Klay Thompson), yet he was normally looking to drive, to go into the very trees that have rendered Tristan Thompson useless in the series and shut down Cavaliers drives from all over, attack the shot blockers, and bank the ball in high of the glass. And often, it worked.
So many of those driving lay-ups went in. So, so many. Some of them hung on the rim for what felt like 45 minutes and would have rolled off the rim had the Earth not been so flat, but they dropped anyway. Irving shot 16-22 from two point range, and those were not an easy 22.
There are two things Kyrie Irving does better than pretty much everyone else alive – handle the ball, and finish shots around the basket. The degree of difficulty on some of them had to be seen to be believed, and was perhaps best illustrated by a comparison midway through the second half; Andre Iguodala took a similarly difficult running banker at one point and missed it by an unexaggerated four feet.
However, while Irving (and LeBron James, who recorded 39 points of his own on 15-27 shooting) had performed some heroics to keep the game close in its late stages, he and they then blew it.
As is their style, Golden State put together a clutch 11-0 run, seemingly unflappable even in the face of a late deficit in an NBA Finals game on the road. After Kevin Durant’s ridiculous pull-up three (which deserves far more attention than it is going to get in this space; that was an all-time great shot) gave the Warriors took the lead with 45.3 seconds left, Cleveland were stuck, and Kyrie felt the responsibility to fix it fell to him to fix it.
On the next possession, Irving brought the ball up and demanded a clear-out, isolating his defender on the right wing. Indeed, as J.R. Smith came over to set an unwanted screen, bringing two extra defenders with him, Irving sent him away again and reset. He knew what he wanted. But all of this set-up play took time. So did Irving’s subsequent scoring attempt, which saw him throw a lot of moves to little effect, never creating enough separation to get even a half-decent look at the rim, and ended up missing a step-back three-pointer badly. Once again, Klay Thompson would not be beat.
What could therefore have been a much needed two-for-one situation had Irving attacked early ended up being a Warriors defensive rebound with 26 seconds left, not enough time for Cleveland to play straight-up defence and necessitating a foul being committed to stop the clock. The need to foul meant the need to foul someone other than third-greatest-foul-shooter-of-all-time Steph Curry or fourteenth-greatest-foul-shooter-of-all-time Kevin Durant. The Cavaliers spent 13 seconds trying not to have to do that, 13 seconds they did not have. In the end, they had to foul Durant, turned it over on their only remaining chance of tying it back up, and Durant and Curry made all four of their foul shots to close out the 118-113 victory.
Irving and James both deny they were tired, despite both of them (as well as a visibly exhausted Kevin Love) clearly looking like it towards the end of the game. Both played almost every minute, yet playing almost every minute of a game against the Warriors is different to playing almost every minute of any other game, due to both the pace they play at and the relentless barrage of talent they bring. Many of those minutes for Kyrie and LeBron were spent playing in a heavily one-on- one style that has become the most effective way Cleveland has found to counter a stifling Warriors defence. That is not an energy efficient strategy.
While James and Irving shot a combined 0-3 in the final five minutes, Durant scored 14 fourth quarter points, and looked remarkably fresh despite his not inconsiderable load on both ends of the floor. The Warriors’ depth allows better rests for their star players without the team completely falling apart as a unit – as evidence of how badly this happens to Cleveland, LeBron James’s +7 plus/minutes rating in 45 minutes and 37 seconds of action in a game they lost by five points means the team somehow went -12 in the 143 seconds he did not play – yet Durant still played 41 minutes himself. In having weapons around him, however, Durant was allowed to be fresher.
There is a difference in playing 41 minutes while only occasionally bringing the ball over half court line and rarely having to clatter into people than there is in playing 45 minutes, grabbing rebounds and going coast to coast, driving seams that are not necessarily there, taking bumps, taking 29 shots instead of 18, and jumping several hundred times per night. That difference is more than just the few extra minutes. Even if they deny being fatigued, and even if those denials are genuine, James and Irving would have been very entitled to being so.
Maybe the fatigue played a factor in the terrible late game execution. Or maybe they just panicked. Either way, Irving’s decision was somewhat predictable.
Last year, Irving made the shot to win the NBA title. The situation was something of a mirror image to this one – in the biggest moment of the season, Irving headed for the right wing, asked for a clear-out, and got it. Once he had it, he dribbled around frenetically, trying to create a morsel of space for a fall-away jumper. The difference being, of course, that that time, he made the shot.
Perhaps it factored slightly that the Cavaliers were tied at that time in that game seven, as opposed to down a point like they were yesterday, and perhaps it factored that his defender that time was Steph Curry (a handsy, quick and capable defender who nevertheless cannot bother the shot much once the shooter has raised up) instead of Klay Thompson (who is a ridiculous defender). And perhaps the fatigue was a factor. But whatever the reason, Kyrie missed it this time.
The Warriors knew it was coming and did not stop it. Either or both of the two defenders who came with Smith could have stayed with Irving and trapped the ball out of his hands. But they did not want that. They were prepared to play Irving one on one, knowing his tendencies, knowing he would want the big shot, knowing he would embrace the superhumanly difficult shot attempt rather than shy away from it. They knew this because he basically always does this.
We looked at this Heroball tendency of Cleveland’s (and Kyrie in particular) late in the regular season, back when the Cavaliers were busy limping to the barn and throwing away their #1 seed with sub .500 play. Even then, in games that did not really matter but which were a foreboding precursor to the ones later on that would, Irving was doing this sort of thing in late game execution. It did not work much then, and it did not work yesterday. It will never be a strategy that will work efficiently when opponents know it is so likely that he will try anyway.
Given that his reputation is in large part founded (and earned) on ‘that shot’, and given that his skill set is as tailored towards that sort of possession more than perhaps anyone else in the game, Irving is a great isolation player. The results of the first three quarters of this game do not exactly disagree with that claim. Yet for all his effort, points until that point, and talent, Irving walked into a trap and was a willing participant in the disciplined and intelligent late game execution we once tried to pick holes in the Warriors for yet no longer can.
It is not purely on Irving. All Cavaliers made some mistakes, including LeBron on the final turnover, Kyle Korver with a bad foul some moments before, and Tyronn Lue in inexplicably not taking his final timeout after the Durant three. Yet Irving’s final attempt jars so badly compared to the whole game prior, to his shot in game seven last season, and to Kevin Durant’s pull-up three 18 seconds earlier, that it will be the moment burned into the brain.
The Cavaliers and Irving played about as well as they can, in the best way they know how to, and lost anyway. It didn’t work. It will never work. It might take one more game, or it might take two more games, but either way, we’re done here.