Kyrie Irving is coming into his own as an effective second option to LeBron James in the Cavaliers’ Eastern Conference finals against the Raptors.
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Most teams fortunate enough to have multiple stars are best off staggering their minutes. Even a single star-level creator can elevate otherwise Spartan lineups. One of the great benefits of having players like LeBron James and Kyrie Irving on the same team is that they centralize an offense’s means of production, affording the Cavs the opportunity to play rebounders or defenders or spot-up shooters without undue burden.
One ancillary benefit: A staggered rotation allows Kyrie to be Kyrie. Cleveland’s best offense flows through James, an instinctive playmaker who reads every sort of defense fluidly. He attacked the gaps in Toronto’s Game 1 defense to lead an onslaught at the rim. When the Toronto overcompensated by attempting to double and crowd James in Cleveland’s 108–89 Game 2 win, he manipulated defenders to log six assists in the first quarter alone. Irving is a stellar accessory under those circumstances, whether by balancing the weakside or orchestrating the offense in tandem with James.
Then, for some 10 minutes a game, Irving is given control without caveat. It’s vital that Cleveland sustains while James rests. Irving offers the means to do it; while Kevin Love also capitalizes on those precious LeBron-less minutes to play a heightened offensive role, Irving undergoes the most dramatic transformation in terms of his usage. In the playoffs thus far, Irving’s field-goal attempts nearly double when James checks out of the game, per NBA.com. He turns hyper-aggressive in the pick-and-roll by lunging into every open pocket. If the defending big drops back into more conservative coverage, Irving long-steps into a short jumper. If they step out to respect that possibility, Irving hits them with dribble move after dribble move until the lane opens up before him.
Forget having the ball on a string—Irving saves the strings for his defender, whom he controls like a marionette. A hesitation coupled with a behind-the-back dribble sends an opponent dancing to his left. A quick shimmy followed by a crossover sends them skittering to the right. All it takes is a flick of the wrist to remind all in the audience that Irving is in complete command.
The poise of Irving’s pull-up jumper is absurd when you consider all of the intricate veering that came before. A half-dozen micro accelerations and decelerations are packed into a single second before Irving rises, perfectly balanced, into his textbook release. Impossible body control is made to look simple.
This isn’t to say that every possession Irving takes off the dribble is an unqualified success. Some of Cleveland’s most fruitless turns are those that are born and die in Irving’s hands; like so many great ball handlers before him, Irving can sometimes mistake his ability to dribble out of difficult situations as a mandate to do so. Curbing that habit is an ongoing process with encouraging results. No team in the East has yet pushed the Cavs’ offense to any kind of continued discomfort, but Irving has largely operated within his lineup-dependent bounds. The Irving who plays with James is a hyper-efficient counter driver and deadly shooter from three-point range (52.7% in the playoffs). The Irving who plays without him is free to indulge.
Toronto found out in Game 2 on Thursday just how fantastic the indulgent Irving can be. Cleveland’s second-billed star attempted seven shots without James on the home floor and made five (71.4%)—none easy and all created by Irving himself. In total, the Raptors lost the minutes when James rested and lost the game, 108–89.
The ongoing battle lies in the balance of Irving’s judgment. Cleveland asks Irving to compartmentalize his greatest singular talent on a nightly basis for the sake of a greater good. Some nights demand more of a negotiation than others. Yet more and more, the Cavs are growing comfortable with their fundamental compromise and the allowance for Irving to make certain stretches his own. Toronto never had much of a chance in a playoff series against a LeBron-anchored team. A mindful Irving all but seals the matter.