So Kyrie Irving may not be quite as important for the Cavaliers as I thought. Cleveland is now 0-1 against the Warriors with Irving in the starting lineup and 1-0 without him. Obviously this is only two games, but what we saw in Game 2 was Cleveland’s blueprint for beating Golden State: turn the game into an ugly, defensive rock-fight by covering Golden State’s guards tightly. While Irving played strong defense in Game 1, I’m not sure he’d have been well-suited for that type of play over the course of the series
Irving’s defense isn’t what made him the second-best player for Cleveland. Most of his value comes from his ability as a scorer and dynamic ball handler, not as a defender, and the Cavs need elite defense badly in this series. Iman Shumpert and Matthew Dellavedova’s defense last night was key to winning Game 2, as they helped frustrate Stephen Curry into a 5-23 shooting performance that included a historically bad 2-15 mark from long range. If Curry shoots even a little better, the Cavs probably don’t tie the series and would be facing a tough 0-2 deficit going back to Cleveland.
Irving has improved defensively, but if the Cavs are going to neutralize the Warriors’ guards with high intensity defense, Shumpert and Dellavedova are better-suited for the job. Cleveland doesn’t want to get in a shootout with Golden State, so slowing Curry and Klay Thompson might be a better route than trying to outscore them on the other end.
Of course, without Irving, the Cavs’ offense takes a huge hit, and that was on display last night. The team only had three players score in double digits, with LeBron being responsible for 66 of Cleveland’s 95 points when you also factor in assists. While this is an impressive stat for LeBron, it’s not a good sign for Cleveland to be so reliant on one player, even if that player is the best in the world. Irving would certainly help share the burden and give the Cavs a more versatile team offensively.
Another big thing the Cavs lost when Irving went down was something of which they were already in short supply: depth. The Cavs only played eight players on Sunday, one of which was Mike Miller, who only played six minutes. Cleveland is effectively playing with seven players, and eventually fatigue is going to take effect. With Games 1 and 2 both going into overtime, the seven Cavs have been playing a lot of intense minutes, and with the Warriors able to spread those minutes across 10 players (11 if they want to dust off David Lee), the Cavs are at a big disadvantage in terms of depth.
The Cavs would be better with Irving in the lineup, but we have to look at whether or not he’s the best guard for the Cavs in this series. If Cleveland is going to win this series, it’s going to be on defense, because the Cavs can’t match the Warriors shot-for-shot on offense. They’ll win by pressuring the Warriors on every possession and making life difficult for them on offense. I’m sure they could’ve fit Irving into this game plan, but I don’t know if he could’ve executed it quite as well as guys like Shumpert and Dellavedova.
If anything, we can say the Cavs are a different team without Irving, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing.