The defensive limitations of Kyrie Irving often get lost in the hand-wringing over the Cavaliers’ team-wide issues on that end of the floor. This version of the wine and gold is old, slow and even pretty small, lacking the quality defensive depth that allowed its previous iterations to so easily “flip the switch” come spring. Nothing in Cleveland’s first three playoff games suggested otherwise, either, despite its likelihood of sweeping the Pacers on Sunday and Ty Lue’s cryptic assertion from late March that he had a plan to “fix” his team’s leaky defense.
There’s no hasty solution to solve the Cavaliers’ defensive problems. It will take maximum effort, constant communication and unrelenting engagement for the defending champions to overcome them. And while there’s no single player on the roster who could single-handedly right the defensive ship, it goes without saying that improved performance by Irving would go a long way toward doing it.
The most notable aspect of Cleveland’s historic 26-point comeback in the second half of Game 3 – other than LeBron James’ virtuosic play, of course – is that it mostly came with Irving on the bench. Deron Williams took his place for the final 16 minutes and 16 seconds of Thursday’s game, and contributed five points and one assist on 1-of-1 shooting during that timeframe. But those pedestrian box-score numbers don’t accurately portray his importance to the Cavaliers’ wild victory, especially compared to that of Irving’s – who was a major liability from the opening tip.
Irving ranked in the 19th percentile of primary pick-and-roll defenders during the regular season, allowing opponents to score 44.9 percent of the time he was involved in a possession that finished with basketball’s most basic action. He’s been even worse in the playoffs. The five-time All-Star is being absolutely abused by Jeff Teague and the Pacers at the point of attack, existing in the third percentile of ball-screen defense and permitting scores on 57.1 percent of the occasions his man receives a pick.
The film is nearly as ugly.
If only Irving’s porous pick-and-roll defense was the result of miscommunication. Instead, it covers the full gambit of bugaboos: poor technique, general inattentiveness and, most commonly, his apparent lack of understanding of five-man defensive integrity.
There are few bigs in basketball more adept at containing smalls than Tristan Thompson. He was a monster on that end in Game 3, too, showing the quick-twitch athleticism at the rim and on the perimeter that caused such problems for the Warriors last June. But versus a lead guard like Jeff Teague, it’s wholly unnecessary for Thompson to switch ball screens the way he does against Steph Curry.
Irving’s eagerness for the easy way out, though, belies that simple reality, routinely leading to breakdowns elsewhere. It would be one thing if his apathy to playing honest pick-and-roll defense was directly related to Thompson’s presence as a help defender. Rather, Irving is just as content leaving the slow-footed Kevin Love and Channing Frye on an island with Teague as he is Thompson.
You’ll notice that each of those clips includes an offensive rebound by Thaddeus Young, who was being guarded by Irving in the paint as shots went up. Young, an average offensive rebounder at best, grabbed a whopping 10 of his teammates misses in Game 3 – all of which came before Irving was benched for good with just over four minutes remaining in the third quarter.
Cleveland really amped up the intensity on defense after intermission, which is the biggest reason why neither of the possessions above led to a Pacers basket. As Irving’s teammates fly all over the floor and frantically communicate before and after switches on the ball, he can’t even bring himself to provide Young some fight on the glass.
Sometimes, even effort and physicality isn’t enough for a perimeter player to successfully block out a big man. Kyle Korver did his best against Kevin Seraphin on this first quarter possession, for instance, but Irving’s inability to keep Teague between himself and the basket ultimately doomed the Cavaliers’ sharpshooter.
Indiana went away from Teague pick-and-rolls after the Cavaliers had completed their run to make it a game in the fourth quarter. Why? To emphasize the influence of Paul George, obviously, but also because Williams is a much more active on-ball defender than Irving. It’s not like getting Frye, who took all of Thompson’s minutes for that decisive stretch, switched onto Teague isn’t a winning proposition for the Pacers; it’s just much harder to goad Cleveland into that mismatch when Irving isn’t checking the ball handler.
The Cavaliers’ defensive rating correlates directly to whether it’s Irving or Williams playing point guard. They allow 122.5 points per 100 possessions with Irving on the floor compared to 104.1 with Williams, and the other on-off numbers tell the same story.
Cleveland’s defensive rebounding percentage is 72.3 when its backup floor general is on the floor, the team’s second-best mark and units featuring Irving are granting the 46.1 points in the paint per 100 possessions, nearly four points above the Cavaliers’ average.
Before Game 3, Cleveland general manager David Griffin told David Zavac of Fear The Sword that Irving prefers “the path of least resistance.” That’s been obvious since he entered the league almost six years ago, but so has Irving’s ability to morph into a capable defender on the postseason stage.
“There’s days where, when he’s highly motivated to do it, you realize he’s special [defensively],” Griffin said. “His hands are lightning quick, his feet are lightning quick. When he wants to, he can do whatever he wants. Fortunately for us, we’ve found that in the playoffs we tend to get the best of him.”
Not this time, at least so far. And if the Cavaliers want a realistic chance to repeat, they need Irving at his defensive best before it’s too late to escape the habits that will keep him from reaching it.
*Statistical support for this post provided by nba.com/stats