When Kyrie Irving suffered a fractured left kneecap in Game 1, pundits and fans declared the NBA Finals were over. There appeared to be no way the Cavaliers could overcome yet another devastating injury after previously losing Kevin Love in the first round. Backup guard Matthew Dellavedova, though, helped put those concerns to rest with a tremendous defensive performance against 2015 MVP Stephen Curry.
Curry was held to just 19 points on 5-of-23 shooting in Game 2, the worst shooting performance of his MVP campaign. Even more staggering: With Dellavedova on him, Curry did not score a single point (0-of-8 from the field, 0-of-5 from three-point range).
“Delly” had an ugly game on offense himself—committing six turnovers while shooting 3-of-10 from the field (1-of-6 from beyond the arc)—but he held Curry scoreless with tenacious D. He stayed inside the MVP’s jersey and contested all of his looks, frustrating him into his worst performance of the postseason to this point.
Dellavedova’s emergence as a defensive-minded game-changer for the Cavs is a narrative that nobody saw coming prior to the playoffs. As SI.com’s Chris Mannix put it, “Of all the unlikely storylines in this postseason, Dellavedova’s emergence is one notch below Cavaliers assistant coach Tyronn Lue coming out of retirement.”
So exactly what type of player was Dellavedova throughout the regular season prior to his postseason breakout? With help from visuals created by sports research engine PointAfter, we’ll provide context for exactly who Cleveland’s gritty role player was throughout the 82-game grind.
Especially when compared directly to guys like Irving, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert, Dellavedova’s influence on the offensive end of the court is pretty negligible. He was a solid outside shooter during the regular season (we’ll get to that), but the Cavaliers were a vastly superior offensive team when he was seated on the bench.
Cleveland’s offensive rating and effective field goal percentage were both noticeably worse when Dellavedova was on the court, but he’s never been expected to produce much scoring. His primary job has been to exert his energy on the defensive end. Throughout the regular season, he helped keep Cleveland steady on that side of the ball.
Of course, that shouldn’t be seen as something to brag about. Merely keeping a defense that ranked No. 18 during the season at a below-average clip doesn’t make Dellavedova a transcendent defensive talent. However, the On/Off defensive difference Delly has provided in the postseason is difficult to ignore. With him, the Cavs are holding opponents to 99.2 points per 100 possessions on a 43.5% effective field goal percentage; without him those numbers jump to 104.7 and 47%, respectively.
The 24-year-old Aussie has been an absolute pest on the defensive side of the ball. Cleveland will need him to keep revving up his non-stop motor if the Cavaliers are going to have a legitimate shot at beating Golden State shorthanded. He doesn’t need to shut down Curry each game, but making the MVP expel large chunks of his energy on each possession could flip this series to the underdogs.
Delly’s Regular Season Offense
While the Cavs have been markedly less effectively offensive with Dellavedova playing, he still posted some respectable numbers.
For instance, the undrafted second-year player dished out three assists per game while averaging approximately 20 minutes per game. By limiting his turnovers to 0.9 per contest, the Saint Mary’s product boasted an assist/turnover ratio of 3.34. That mark ranked him fourth among qualified players behind only Chris Paul, Ty Lawson and J.J. Barea during the regular season. His ability to set up teammates without coughing the ball up made him a serviceable backup ball handler.
When he wasn’t looking to pass the rock, Dellavedova was frequently firing away from distance. An incredible 54% of his shot attempts came from three-point range, where he shot 40.7% (a career-best). Most of that damage was done above the break, where the youngster shot 44.7%—far better than the league-average mark of 33.1%.
That narrative has shifted in the playoffs, as the 6'4" guard has struggled above the break while lighting it up in a small sample size from the corners.
Again, his impact on the Cavs unit as a whole has been far from impressive offensively, but he’s shown the ability to knock down outside shots while protecting the ball. Those strengths at least ensure he won’t be a black hole in halfcourt sets.
Irving is light years ahead of the older Dellavedova in terms of overall talent, and his absence will no doubt hurt Cleveland’s chances of ending a franchise-long title drought. But if the “next man up” in this instance can continue building his defensive identity, and perhaps manage to revert to his sharpshooting ways, the Cavs will still have enough firepower to shock the basketball world.
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