Kyrie Irving came into this NBA Finals looking for something of a turning point in his career. After missing all but one game of the Finals in 2015, this is his first full appearance on the biggest stage in the league.
As a player who is defined by both his clear strengths and his glaring flaws, this was a big chance for him to advance his claim as a major NBA star.
That didn’t start out so well. Irving shot 12-for-36 in the first two games, both huge wins for the Golden State Warriors. He added only five assists in those contests with six turnovers.
Game 3 was something of s a different story—an example of what has made him a player worthy of name recognition in the league. He tallied 30 points and eight assists. His early game explosion gave the Cavaliers a 20-point lead that allowed them to secure a crucial win.
Irving’s explosion was more than just a case of a cold streak ending. His approach in Game 3 was different. In some ways, it was more aggressive. He held the ball and attacked alone more often. However, his performance was also defined by a greater degree of awareness and precision. He was patient, dribbled things out, and picked his spots better.
The Cavaliers’ offense helped him put on the show he did. They put him in the pick-and-roll more and allowed him to go to work. He repaid his squad by being decisive off the screens, pulling up quickly when he saw space.
The ability to rise and release quickly is one of Irving’s greatest individual talents. In fact, it’s one he uses less than he should. When he looks confident and acts decisively, he maximizes his value.
However, he did dribble a lot in Game 3, a habit critics deride him for. In this game, his dribble was not mindless wandering and sizing up defenders. When he dribbled, he did it with purpose. He actually made moves instead of just wasting seconds away by analyzing. Look at this play against Steph Curry.
He holds onto the ball for a couple of seconds, but he’s not wasting those seconds. He’s using the time he has with the ball to create space in a quick and efficient manner. That’s how Irving does damage. He can dribble and still find a way to get his shot. NBA.com player tracking shows his highest field goal percentage is after two dribbles. A couple of dribbles to create space and take a shot: that’s the recipe for good offense from him.
Compare it to this play, where he hesitates, taking measure of his opponent. It sets up a possession that’s going nowhere. He ends up with a few seconds left in a mismatch against the taller Harrison Barnes. The result is a deflected shot.
Irving’s drive decisions this series have been problematic. Even against small lineups and players who aren’t rim protectors, Irving has been tested when hitting the driving lane. Shaun Livingston has been giving Irving problems on both ends with his size and length. In this play, Irving thinks he can manage a drive to the rim over Livingston, who proves him wrong.
Livingston does a good job using his long arms to crowd out Irving’s release point, and a swipe at the ball by Draymond Green forces Irving to take his challenger head on. No other Cleveland players are around to assist him in his drive.
This is a good comparison of how the Cavs offense functioned differently in Game 3. They helped Irving with screens. In both the above clips, it’s Kyrie vs. one guy and that’s it. In Game 3, the Cavs found a better way to exploit the Warriors lax defense. They screened for Irving, giving him space to launch shots.
Even more importantly, they gave the Warriors a dose of their own medicine.
One of the defining narratives of these two rosters is that the Warriors can force the Cavs into uncomfortable switches and mismatches. The Cavs don’t have a lot of great defenders, so switching a big onto Curry and Irving onto a roll man is dangerous. The Cavs turned that same trick on the Warriors in Game 3 by exploiting Golden State’s defensive lapses.
This works for the roll man, who now has Steph Curry on him. In fact, Curry’s second foul in the first quarter of Game 3 was on a switch where he was put against Tristan Thompson. It also can work for Irving, who could see a bigger, slower player in front of him. The kind he can take off the dribble easily.
This play is perhaps the best example of how it worked for the Cavs. Curry is tied in the screen, triggering the switch. Andrew Bogut cannot keep up with Irving on the perimeter, so Irving gets by. This causes the help defender to rotate from the corner, and Irving gives Richard Jefferson the open three.
That is basically everything the Cavs had going in regards to Irving. A switched pick-and-roll along with quick attacking and astute court awareness from Irving leads to an open bucket. Irving notices that Draymond Green is in his way, so he opts not to take him on at the rim. Instead, he secures a three for a teammate.
The bad news for Cleveland is things likely cannot always go this well, or this would have happened more in the previous two games. Curry has never been a lockdown defender, but he looked especially rough in Game 3. Irving was able to punish the Warriors for it, but one should expect Curry to pick it up a bit going forward. In fact, that’s true for the entire Warriors defense.
The other problem is that the Warriors can switch that pick-and-roll much easier with Draymond Green, either with their Death Lineup or with a 1-4 pick-and-roll where it’s Irving against Green.
Green’s defensive ability limits Irving’s opportunity to be too fancy without risking turnovers. In Game 2, Irving understandably lost his confidence against Green.
Once again, Irving gets the ball and is sort of left on an island, either by design or by choice. Either way, he doesn’t try to press Green.
Now just because Irving did better in pick-and-roll than when driving alone certainly doesn’t mean he should or did stop attacking mismatches at the rim. The Warriors have stuck with putting Andersen Varejao for a few pockets of time in these playoffs. Kyrie Irving is not afraid of Varejao at the rim, apparently.
The Cavs have the floor very well spaced for the pick-and-roll on this play, and Irving again is swift in his decision-making. He knows that if he can take Varejao off the dribble, he has an easy two points at the rim, so he goes and does it. That’s far different from the version of Kyrie, who wastes shot clock time and action from his teammates staring down his man.
So Irving, in general, was just more decisive in the right ways at the right times. He attacked mismatches and passed off when he didn’t have a good look. He dribbled and moved with purpose instead of wasting time dribbling the life out of the ball. Surprise! He went off because of it.
Now to rain on the parade: So much of this great stuff from Irving was in the first quarter, He scored or assisted on more points than the Warriors had in total at the first break. In the other three quarters, he shot 5-16 from the floor and fell back into a few old habits.
It’s hard to pinpoint why, as it has been for all of Irving’s career. Was it just a fallback into the same problems that have defined his career so far? Was he initially energized by coming home for a crucial game and then that feeling tapered off? Did he just put the brakes on because the Cavs were winning by 20?
Game 4 will help answer those questions, but Irving certainly proved what he can do in Game 3. More games like that one from Irving may have the Cavs sticking around in this Finals series for a long time.