2017 NBA Finals: Warriors vs. Cavaliers
Kyrie Irving has been pesky proposition for Golden State Warriors -- especially in elimination games
Cavaliers guard has stepped up game against Golden State when Cleveland needs him the most
OAKLAND, Calif. — As panicky as Kyrie Irving can make a defense, as frantic as opponents and their coaches can become in real time when the Cleveland Cavaliers’ point guard is shredding their strategies and dominating the scoreboard, it’s important not to overreact.
The Golden State Warriors are working overtime in the hours leading to Game 5 of The Finals not to overreact to Irving’s potentially lethal offensive threat.
The “Do something! Do anything!” knee-jerk approach to in-game or in-series adjustments can get teams in a lot of trouble.
“You can jump around a lot. You can do a lot of different things,” said Ron Adams, the Warriors’ defensive guru on coach Steve Kerr’s staff. “But you’d better be careful with that. Because if you’re leaking doing the things you know how to do, don’t assume because you go to something else the dike isn’t going to be leaking more. Basketball doesn’t work that way.”
Like the fabled little Dutch boy, a team of five players has only so many fingers and toes to stick into a leaking dike. Irving, with his 40 points in Game 4 on top of the 38 points he scored in Game 3, spent much of his time back in Cleveland poking holes in Golden State’s defense.
Adams was driven to distraction as much as anyone in the Warriors’ traveling party by the many ways in which Irving rendered his playbook porous.
“It was a miserable night,” he said Sunday after his team’s workout at its downtown practice facility. “We could never get a foothold.”
But he knows that overcompensating to thwart Irving — blitzing him on pick-and-rolls, for example, to force him to give up the ball — would open up leaks for Cleveland’s proficient 3-point shooters (they made 24 of 45 Friday). Or lead to an even more serious breach, LeBron James bursting through like the Kool-Aid Man to wreak even greater havoc than he already has.
Irving, 25, is at it again. He’s in elimination mode, that turbo-boost level that saw him string together 41, 23 and 26 points in the final three championship games last June to help the Cavaliers dig out of their 3-1 hole. And Golden State is torn, choosing between extraordinary measures to deal with Irving vs. sticking with their preferred tactics that he seems to have solved.
“Well, it all starts on the ball,” Kerr said. “If you get broken down at the point of attack, now you have to help and now the dominoes start falling and they’re swinging the ball side to side, and they got shooters everywhere. So, our on-ball defense has to be better, our pick-and-roll defense has to be better.”
Klay Thompson, with occasional stints by others, has had primary responsibility for chasing around Irving. Through three games, even with the Cavs guard scoring 38 in Game 3, Thompson was effective. And then…
“One of our coaches said [Thompson is] like the yellow lab who just keeps chasing the ball like all day,” Kerr said. “He doesn’t think, he just chases Kyrie all day. And then he gets an open shot and he just shoots all day. That’s Klay. That’s perfect. I think he’s been brilliant.
“But Kyrie has been amazing and he’s hitting a lot of tough shots.”
Few if any are better at creating and finishing with the basketball, enlisting the glass as an ally and using the rim to fend off blocks. He has a Velcro handle and a devastating crossover dribble, with an array of fakes and jukes to freeze his defender before launching a step-back jumper. Remember the game-winner in Game 7 last June?
Who could forget?
“It’s just who he is,” Adams said. “He can make those [difficult] shots. I don’t know if there’s anyone any better at doing it in the league right now. We have to manage him better. I thought we did so in the first three games, and in that game, he got away from us.”
The “what” is easier than the “how.”
“It’s hard to take the ball out of his hands,” the Warriors’ assistant coach said. “Because a lot of his scoring isn’t coming off of ball screens. Some of it is. He gets going off of ball screens, but he gets going off of one-on-one. He creates. He’s good in his pull-up. He’s good in his drives. He’s a nightmare to guard.”
If he’s getting 39 points off two’s, we can live with that. But when he’s extending the floor and hitting those threes, it widens the whole floor for everybody.”
Golden State’s Klay Thompson, on Kyrie Irving
Irving talked Sunday about playing smarter as The Finals has gone on, adjusting not just to Thompson but to his own nerves and impatience.
“A lot of opportunities that I felt like I didn’t take advantage of,” Irving said, “because if it wasn’t there after that split second, then I felt like it wasn’t there anymore.
“And they did a great job of corralling me into certain positions that I felt uncomfortable. … Klay is an incredible defender. And as much as he is studying me, I’m studying him.”
Irving said he tried to get off the ball some, set a few screens, grab a rebound now and then (he had seven in Game 4) as ways to stay aggressive without searching for shots. But the biggest difference from Irving earlier in the series to the one who dissected them Friday was his effectiveness from the arc. After shooting 5-of-17 on 3-pointers as Cleveland dropped the first three games, Irving was 7-of-12 in the victory.
“How all of a sudden does a guy get seven threes who has been hitting the three occasionally?” Adams asked. And it was rhetorical, because he wasn’t giving away any info for how Golden State will see that it does not happen again.
The Warriors accept that they didn’t offer enough resistance defensively. Kevin Durant said Cleveland shooters had time to “make a sandwich” out at the 3-point line before he or his teammates got out to contest, and if that didn’t change, the outcome could be the same.
But there was a tone heading toward Game 5 that Cleveland will be hard-pressed to duplicate everything that went its way most recently. Scoring 49 points in the first quarter and 86 in the half? Sinking an NBA record 24 3-pointers? Come on, not gonna happen again.
Same with a trend that had some Golden State members raising an eyebrow or two: Cleveland has shot 46 free throws to the Warriors’ 26 in the four first quarters so far, with an edge in all but Game 2.
Simply counting on that to change, though, might be risky. As risky as waiting for Irving to cool off.
“If he’s getting 39 points off two’s, we can live with that,” Thompson said. “But when he’s extending the floor and hitting those threes, it widens the whole floor for everybody.
“So we can’t do that again and hopefully limit that number to two or three instead of seven. That’s too many.”
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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