Kyrie Irving is a superstar. He led the Cavaliers with a 40-point effort on 17-of-33 shooting that included 9 assists and a barrage of mid-range jumpers and confident takes to the hole. Mr. Fourth Quarter scored 22 points in the final 22 minutes against one of the best teams that the Eastern Conference has to offer1 In a double overtime loss, there is no one play that truly “loses” the game. However, there were several correctable mistakes in crunch time that could be directly attributed to the Cavaliers’ point guard. Poor shot attempts when better shots can be had with offensive movement, turnovers off extremities when a key possession needs to be secured, and inopportune pick-and-roll switches are listed among the violations. Between their headliner and their director, the Cavaliers have a real problem, and it’s bigger than a 127-125 double overtime loss against a team that’s better than them right now.
It’s a tangled web we as fans can weave at times when the star player is criticized. There’s undoubtedly some hangover from the last All-Star player the Cavaliers had who had a seemingly blank check with fans, teammates, coaches, and media pundits not named Skip Bayless. I think the mistake some make is the belief one cannot criticize a star player unless you’re also saying he’s not the answer and the future. The reason I’ve been so hard on Kyrie is that I’ve seen him excel on offense, take good shots to his heart’s content in said offense, and carry this team for an entire fourth quarter. Then, in the final minute, the movement grinds to a screeching halt, the defensive vice tightens, and Kyrie more often than not doesn’t give the ball up to either get it back or allow someone else to score. The maddening thing is that the Hawks couldn’t stop Irving attacking the basket or his offensive assets, but Irving did.
Kyrie had two teeth-gnashing turnovers at the worst possible time. At the close of the first overtime, about 40 feet from the basket, Irving allowed Teague to reach in and poke away the ball. It wasn’t enough to call a foul, and Irving lost the handle out of bounds. It gave the Hawks 2.4 seconds to try and win the game when Jeff Teague misfired. In the second overtime, it was a defensive rebound nearly secured with the Hawks heading back up the court that Kyrie fumbled out and onto the baseline that gave the Hawks new life on the possession with 39 seconds remaining. The Cavaliers had a season-high 24 turnovers, and six of those belonged to Kyrie2
As for his shot-making abilities as the game winds down, I’ll let the numbers speak for a minute. When the game winds down in close affairs, Irving’s field goal percentage plummets, and it does so in a much more drastic manner than one would expect.
There’s no denying that everyone’s knowledge of Kyrie holding onto the ball for shots in the final minute is killing his effectiveness down the stretch. That’s why it’s more difficult to think of key situations where he gave the ball up and it didn’t work. Anderson Varejao’s had key end of game buckets twice this season (the Brooklyn opener and the Portland heart-breaker) due to double or triple teams on Irving. Thompson had the key offensive rebound because of all the attention on Irving in the Milwaukee game last week. This isn’t the first time that Dion was hot in the first 3 1/2 quarters, only to be forgotten once Kyrie re-enters the game for the stretch run. That’s flat-out wrong and awful team basketball. Irving’s shown the ability to share the ball enough for most of the game, but right now, it’s coming off as a lack of trust in his teammates as the seconds tick down.
In a game that could have been won three or four different times, it’s difficult to lose a game like this when there were so many good signs from several players. Dion Waiters, returning from a three-game absence due to a wrist injury, scored 20 points on 9-of-14 shooting. Tristan Thompson made key plays at both ends of the floor and scored 22 points of his own on 8-of-13 shooting. Matthew Dellavedova had 9 of his own, hitting four key free throws in the first overtime session and drawing two offensive fouls. When the Cavaliers have movement without the ball, they can get contributions from all five players out on the court when you factor in offensive rebounding and wide open looks at three pointers. Waiters in particular had a couple of phenomenal first half plays where he got himself buckets by cutting to the hoop and posting up and pinning his man respectively. I’m not saying Irving shouldn’t take the tough shots at the end of the clock. What I am saying, however, is that he shouldn’t do so after dribbling in isolation, with no particular purpose, for 20 seconds of the shot clock while his teammates stand and watch.
This was a bizarre game that had a little bit of everything. Al Horford and DeMarre Carroll both left with injuries in overtime after Horford scored 25 points being the focus of the offense. Teague hit a Lillard-range deep three near the end of the first overtime3 and the game-winner in double OT. Tyler Zeller played key fourth-quarter minutes and played well while Bynum, Miles, and Clark did not find the floor again.
Mike Brown doesn’t escape this game without blame either. The Cavs couldn’t get any better than a kicked ball and an Anderson Varejao heave from 30 feet at the end of regulation in two tries as Irving and Waiters could not get open on the inbound play. On the game-winning shot by Teague, why, when the ball is likely going to Teague with Horford out of the game, do you leave Kyrie, one of the team’s worst perimeter defenders on him? Alonzo Gee sat on the bench and Matthew Dellavedova, who had sparked the team, sat on the bench in favor of Irving and Jack who both struggle at keeping their man in front of them on an island. The point also should have been hammered home that Irving should have fought through the pick instead of switching, because Thompson never had a chance of properly contesting that Teague jumper. Teague nearly matched Kyrie’s output with 34 points and 14 assists of his own.
You get the feeling that Mike Brown has been in constant scramble mode with his rotation all season long. Alonzo Gee, the team’s best perimeter defender, did not get off the bench as Earl Clark regained his starting spot at small forward. Brown went with four small guards (Irving, Jack, Dellavedova, and Waiters) along with Tristan Thompson for a couple of overtime possessions. You talk about playing Gee or Clark, Bennett or Bynum or Zeller, Delly or Miles? Brown can’t settle on a consistent lineup, and I think it’s preventing the team from getting the familiarity it needs to execute late. It’s obvious Irving doesn’t trust his teammates, and it’s even more evident that Brown isn’t going to call Irving out on it.
You can’t build the foundation of this team as one with multiple options and champion it as different from the past if you’re only going to tolerate and encourage one man trying to do it all in the game’s final minutes. You can’t have a defensive-minded coach running the ship if you’ve decided you want to play every single game in the 100’s. Right now, the Cavaliers have so many more questions than answers. Turnovers, Mike Brown’s inability to get his team to play his style, and Kyrie’s inability to trust his teammates late: the themes continue to repeat in this tumultuous season. Something’s got to give sooner or later.
(Photo: Scott Sargent/WFNY)
- Insert joke here. [↩]
- They kept saying 25 turnovers post-game, which would’ve given Kyrie 7 turnovers. However, the NBA.com stats called the play described above as simply a team rebound, implying that Kyrie did not have possession. I beg to differ, and the end result is the same as a turnover anyway. [↩]
- On another play where the Cavaliers’ defense failed them. Kyrie got trapped down hard by a double screen, and the Cavs were so concerned that Korver was going to get loose that Teague filled the spot that Korver vacated at the top of the key. Delly needed to switch it, and he noticed it too late. [↩]