Data Dimes: Cavaliers getting help from all of The King's men
Get all of Ben Leibowitz's columns as soon as they’re published. Download the new Sports Illustrated app (iOS or Android) and personalize your experience by following your favorite teams and SI writers.
In Game 1 against the Detroit Pistons, the top–seeded Cavaliers pulled away late in the fourth quarter to notch a tight opening victory. Cleveland’s three stars—LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love—combined for 81 points in the win, improving Cleveland’s record to 7–0 when the Big Three tallies 80 points or more this season.
In Game 2, the trio combined for 65 points, cashing in on nine three–pointers and rolling to a 17–point victory and 2–0 series lead.
It’s not rocket science that the Cavs tend to perform well when their three best players put up big numbers. But after an injury–riddled playoff run a season ago, simply having James, Irving and Love healthy for the postseason run is a welcome starting point for Tyronn Lue’s crew.
It has, however, been a tough year for LeBron’s supporting cast. Getting everyone in rhythm will prove vital for the remainder of the playoffs, but some disconcerting signs did crop up during the regular season to cast some doubt on the “All for One” Cavaliers. Luckily for Cleveland, early returns against the Pistons hint the rust might finally be chipping away.
Can Kyrie Find His Shooting Touch?
After reaching the All–Star team for three consecutive seasons from 2013–2015, Irving missed out on a fourth straight appearance in 2016. Being absent for the first month and a half of the season (24 games to start the year) didn’t help his case, but Irving’s usually elite three-point stroke also deserted him.
In 53 games played throughout the 2015–16 season, Irving made just 32.1% of his three-point attempts. That’s both the worst mark of the Duke product’s NBA career and a 9.4% regression compared to a season ago. Only Charlie Villanueva, Luke Babbitt and Rodney Stuckey suffered starker declines from distance among players who attempted at least 80 threes in each of the past two seasons.
Irving simply didn’t play like himself throughout the year after missing significant time. But it seems the bright lights of playoff basketball have rejuvenated the 24–year–old.
Through the first two wins against Detroit, Irving knocked down 9–of–17 treys (52.9%). That’s precisely what King James wants to see from his wingman, but perhaps there wasn’t any need to be concerned. After being marred by inconsistency, the sharpshooting point guard started to fill it up in April.
Outside shooting has always been the most dangerous weapon in Irving’s offensive arsenal. And while the sample size isn’t much to work with, Irving has enough of an established track record to make pundits and fans believe he’s hitting his stride at exactly the right time.
Love’s Shot at Redemption?
Love’s stint in the playoffs last year was cut short by a Kelly Olynyk armbar. A dislocated left shoulder sidelined the big man for the remainder of the postseason, leaving the Cavs with a distinct lack of depth after the opening series.
Love hasn’t exactly fit into the Cavaliers’ blueprint since coming over from Minnesota. In six seasons for the Timberwolves, the UCLA product averaged 19.2 points and 12.2 rebounds. Those marks have dipped rather significantly to 16.2 points and 9.8 rebounds over the course of two full seasons with Cleveland.
It was to be expected that Love would score fewer points as the No. 3 offensive option as opposed to the go-to guy, but the eye test has often left Love looking disjointed. Without elite rebounding and respectable scoring output, Love has proved to be too much of a liability on the defensive end at times.
In 2016, however, Love has stepped up his game. While sending the Pistons to an 0-2 series deficit, Love averaged 22 points and 11.5 rebounds while draining 46.7% of his threes (7-of-15). The offensive matchup against post–bound Andre Drummond is an ideal one for Love, as he can merely step out and get open looks, but that shouldn’t diminish his hot start to postseason play. Obviously, James is the alpha dog and the catalyst for Cleveland’s success—but he can’t win on the biggest stage by himself. He needs the other cogs in the machine to run smoothly. Thus far, Irving and Love have done just that by providing a spark (particularly from beyond the arc).
It’s unreasonable to expect the scorching–hot outside shooting to continue throughout the playoffs, but the exemplary starts can no doubt boost the confidence of James’s compatriots. Despite some shoddy records against Eastern Conference foes, the Cavs are staking a claim as favorites to reach the NBA Finals once again.