With the Cleveland Cavaliers down 3–1 in the Finals to a team hoping to cap off its historic season-long run, it’s more than fair to start pondering the future. Golden State isn’t going anywhere, and any team with LeBron James will be the favorite out East. There is a very real possibility that these two teams squaring off now could end up playing two or three more times in the NBA Finals. To avoid history continually repeating itself, the Cavs will have to lean on the player whose timetable hasn’t yet been compromised by Father Time. They’ll have to lean on Kyrie Irving, who is not only the team’s youngest player, but the player who embodies nearly all of the potential for growth remaining on this Cavs roster.
No player has benefited more from Kevin Love’s diminished role over the last two games than Irving. After averaging 18 points on 33 percent shooting in Games 1 and 2, Kyrie averaged 32 points on 49 percent shooting in Games 3 and 4. The Cavs made a concerted effort to pound the ball in to Love in the first two games; his absence created more driving lanes for Irving to do what he does. It worked in a must-win Game 3, but ultimately, they traded one ball-stopping strategy for another.
The fourth quarter of Game 4 was a microcosm of everything that people have questioned about Irving’s game. He went 0-for-5 from the field in the first eight minutes of the quarter, a stretch when the Warriors extended their lead to nine points and took control of the game. The Cavs offense ground to a halt, as LeBron and Kyrie fruitlessly traded 1-on-5 attacks against the Warriors defense. Cleveland resorted to isolation basketball with its season on the line, and it backfired spectacularly.
Despite Irving’s uptick in productivity in the last couple of games, he hasn’t been that effective in situations centered around the most renowned part of his game. Steph Curry, not Kyrie, has been the better isolation scorer of the two starting point guards in this series. So far, Irving has scored 18 points on 31 isolation plays, while Curry has scored 24 on 19 possessions, more than doubling Kyrie’s output per possession. Great players are defined by more than just their trademarks, however. Steph may be known primarily for his ability to shoot jumpers off the dribble, but he’s proven that he can impact a game as a passer almost as much as he can as a shooter. It’s legitimate to wonder if Irving has diversified his game enough to be considered great.
Kyrie is facing off against the player he should be modeling in ways that go beyond efficient scoring — most pressingly, on defense. Steph and Kyrie are relatively similar physically, with average size and length for a starting NBA point guard, but without the type of elite athleticism or muscular build that would allow them to match up with bigger players. The Finals, at times, has felt like a contest to see which of the two can get exposed on individual defense in the most humiliating, Vine-worthy way. But defense, of course, is more nuanced than that. Curry gets tons of grief for his defense, but he has worked a lot over the last few years to become respectable on that side of the ball. Steph had a defensive real plus-minus of plus-1.05 this season, the fifth-highest in the league among point guards; Kyrie checked in at minus-3.2, the third-worst of 85 qualifying players at his position. Curry’s numbers are assisted by playing next to superior defenders, but the onus is on him to understand the schemes intimately and avoid mental mistakes when it comes to switching and communicating with the other four guys on the floor.
That is the most glaring improvement that Irving needs to make. The Warriors preyed on his susceptibility on defense in that fourth quarter of Game 4 by repeatedly involving him in screens on the other end of the floor. Irving doesn’t have the luxury of playing with several of the era’s best defensive players. Kyrie’s margin for error is slimmer than Curry’s due to the personnel on the floor with him; his errors are often as much a result of commission as they are of omission. Irving has made some impressive defensive plays in the Finals, which only makes the lack of effort he shows at times, especially during the regular season, more apparent.
None of this is all that unusual when you consider that Steph is 28 and Kyrie is 24. When Curry was Irving’s age, he was just establishing himself as the Warriors’ top option and dealing with questions about his ability to stay on the floor playing for an inexperienced playoff team. Costarring next to LeBron James has accelerated Kyrie’s developmental timetable, and he’s had to deal with his growing pains on the biggest stage of the sport. A lot of talented scorers have to learn the importance of playing defense and sharing the ball, but few have those lessons hammered home in a more public fashion.
If the Cavs end up losing to the Warriors, this will be the first time in Kyrie’s career when his absolute best was not good enough. He waltzed through his first few seasons with no scrutiny, playing for one of the worst teams in the league with no expectations that he would carry them out of the basement. He broke his kneecap during last year’s Finals, so the Cavs had a ready-made excuse for why they came up short. Irving still has time on his side. Young players learn how to improve by making mistakes, and in the most pressure-packed situation of his career, he’s having to learn on the fly. However the final games of this bout play out, the real key to Cleveland’s future championship viability rests in what Irving can take away from this formative experience. Because there might not be a greater motivator in the NBA than the sinking feeling after the final buzzer when a player realizes the kind of role he played in winning or losing a championship.