2017 NBA Finals: Warriors vs. Cavaliers

If the Cleveland Cavaliers claw back again this Finals, it will be because of Kyrie Irving

Curry, LeBron, Durant pulling their superstar weight -- but not so much Irving

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

CLEVELAND — It can be said with some accuracy that Kyrie Irving swung the last two championship series between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers more than Ohio did the last election. In The 2015 Finals, he was hurt and didn’t really play, and the Cavs lost the series. In The 2016 Finals, he played — just ask Stephen Curry — and the Cavs won.

Now that we’ve established his level of importance in The 2017 NBA Finals, he’s playing, and not particularly brilliantly, and the Cavs are in trouble.

If it’s indeed true the Warriors’ 2-0 lead isn’t the same as the one they blew last year because, as LeBron James said, they have some guy named Kevin Durant, the best way for Cleveland to rally is if the Cavs get more from Irving, and fast.

The stutter-stepping, freaky-dribbling, unapologetic shooter who gave Golden State nightmares last summer and drilled the biggest shot in franchise history right between Curry’s eyes is bringing only flashes right now. The Cavs are getting Irving in small doses right when LeBron, visibly frustrated if not gassed by the burden, could use a few buckets full.

People think you’re playing great defense against him. Well, you can’t believe the hype. … He didn’t catch fire last year until Game 3. So we’re not going to get too excited just yet.”

Klay Thompson on Kyrie Irving

And so the best way for this series to develop any suspense is for Irving to be the player who famously waved off LeBron in Game 7, a pretty gutsy decision, and won a championship for Cleveland. It’ll take that kind of confidence and cold-bloodedness to keep up with the Warriors’ scoring machine and repel the notion that a quick series is in the works.

Curry, LeBron and Durant are pulling their superstar weight and, to a degree, so has Kevin Love. Irving? Not so much. Not that he’s been a complete non-factor, thought. (That would be Tristan Thompson, who has fewer rebounds than Curry.) No, Irving simply hasn’t had a statement game or moment, or done anything to help Cleveland pull out a win, as he did a few times last summer.

Oh, you forgot? When the series switched to Cleveland following a pair of lopsided Golden State wins, Irving went nuts and scored 30 points in an easy Cavs’ decision in Game 3. His next two games: 34 and then a masterful 41-point whopper. In the final two games, as the Cavs completed the historic comeback from being down 3-1, Irving provided the balance that LeBron needed with a pair of solid outings that included the pull-up jumper that filled the streets of Cleveland. He became, in the minds of many in the basketball world, a top-level star.

Life turned even more blissful for Irving after that. A few months later he earned Olympic gold in Rio and was voted to start in the All-Star Game over John Wall and Kyle Lowry for the East in February.

“We know what he can do,” said Warriors guard Klay Thompson.

Yes, give the Warriors this: They refuse to believe what they’ve seen so far from Irving. Thompson is the first line of defense against Irving and he’s planning for a busy and exhausting night Wednesday.

“Look, I’ve been playing against Kyrie for a long time,” said Thompson. “He’s missed some shots he usually makes. People think you’re playing great defense against him. Well, you can’t believe the hype. It’s been two games. He didn’t catch fire last year until Game 3. So we’re not going to get too excited just yet.”

Irving is 18-for-45 so far in The Finals with more turnovers (seven) than 3-pointers (five). Thompson, despite his modesty, is doing a fair job by playing on his heels and keeping Irving from driving the lane as much, so Irving doesn’t hurt the Warriors with “and-one” layups and fouls (Irving has shot only three free throws).

Contrast that to Curry, and the point guard comparison really isn’t close. Dogged in the past by postseason performances that didn’t matched his astonishing success in the two previous regular seasons when he won MVP, Curry is on a playoff high right now. He’s at 28.8 points on 50 percent shooting in springtime, and in the Finals it’s 30 points with 10.5 assists.

Irving was otherworldly through much of the spring, too, which makes The Finals more perplexing. In the Eastern Conference finals he carved up the Boston Celtics, shooting 70 percent in the final four games against a team with solid defenders.

The Warriors are a notch better defensively, though, and Irving acknowledged being flummoxed by what he’s staring at when he has the ball.

“They’re definitely throwing a lot of bodies at me. Definitely not allowing me to play some comfortable positions that I’m used to. They have the ability to take away some angles that are there for a split second, but if you don’t take it at that split moment, then it can very well close up. They have thrown their game plan out there, what they’re not going to allow me to do, and now I’ve got to figure out what I want to do.”

If Irving shakes free of Thompson, there’s a real chance that Durant and his 7-foot-5 wingspan will be waiting, if not Draymond Green or a sneaky pick attempt from Curry, who’s cheating off a cold-shooting J.R. Smith.

It’s the ultimate sign of respect that the Warriors would treat Irving with the same reverence as they give LeBron. When you’ve been burned before by Irving, and the wounds from last summer are still fresh, nothing is taken for granted.

Also, remember that Irving also beat the Warriors last Christmas on a short turnaround jumper over Thompson with 3.4 seconds left, more evidence why Thompson remains guarded and wary.

“He’s got great one-on-one moves, the best in the world,” Thompson said. “Like Steph, he can get into a rhythm with his handles and his shot to where you just can’t stop him. I’m just trying to take as much of that away as possible.”

The Cavs certainly have other issues. Like Irving, Tristan Thompson was a handful in the playoffs and particularly in the East finals with his relentless rebounding work. He also found a comfort zone offensively. He became a reasonably reliable option with put-backs and free throws, boasting games of 18 and 20 points in the playoffs. He’s averaging 10.8 rebounds in the playoffs. He was a bundle of energy and the source of much irritation for opposing post players. In this series, he has four baskets, four fouls, eight rebounds and is a shadow of himself.

The Cavs also ranked among the league’s best 3-point shooting teams this season, ranking second in 3-pointers per game and 3-point percentage. That was mainly due to LeBron giving open looks to Smith, Irving, Kevin Love, Channing Frye and Kyle Korver.

In these Finals though, none of the role players are anywhere near their seasonal averages. Collectively, they’re 5-for-21 on 3-pointers in the series, with Smith struggling to get looks (only four attempts) or makes (one). His woes raised the possibility that his minutes might get cut for Iman Shumpert. Again, much of this is due to the Warriors, a quick, rotating bunch that reach shooters and close off spaces, forcing the Cavs out of their rhythm and comfort zones from deep.

With that avenue closed off, or seriously limited, LeBron is forced to labor. On a few occasions, frustrated by his teammates’ inability to generate points, his body language turned sour and he settled for jump shots himself.

At this rate, the Cavs will need 125 points to stand a good chance of beating the Warriors, and LeBron can’t score half that much. Durant, Curry and mates are getting good looks either at the rim or from deep and rolling up the score. The Cavs are searching for efficiency and balance. Irving can change plenty with a 2016 throwback, and he realizes that.

“Whether I have the ball in my hands or not, an impact needs to be made on the game,” he said. “And that’s where it stands. I’ll exude as much confidence in my guys as much as I can in order to get what I need out of them.

“As for myself, I know how important I have to be in order for us to have any chance in this series.”

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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