- With the Cavs in do-or-die mode heading into Game 5, they'll need their cold-blooded point guard to step up once again. Luckily, Elimination Game Kyrie lives for opportunities like this.
OAKLAND — Unofficially, the most-repeated phrase of the 2017 NBA Finals has been: “This year is different than last year.” Both teams have been in full agreement on that point. Both coaches and both fan bases too.
And yet Cleveland’s surprisingly dominant Game 4 performance brought the déjà vu rushing back, with the Warriors returning home to Oracle Arena with a 3-1 lead and the Cavaliers drawing inspiration from Golden State’s preemptive celebratory “chatter.” At Sunday’s practice, the prevailing talk among many media members in attendance shifted from the Warriors’ seeming invincibility to: “The Warriors better win this or this series is going to seven games.”
LeBron James, for one, wasn’t ready to hop aboard that shifting narrative. “No, I feel like this is the game we got to get,” he said, when asked if Game 5 was a must-win for Golden State. “Or, s---, it's over with.”
At moments like this, it’s important to point out that Golden State’s Game 4 loss was its first defeat in 61 days. But pressure is a funny thing, and the mind inevitably races to the worst-case scenario at the thought of two straight losses in closeout games by the Warriors one year after they dropped three straight closeout games in the 2016 Finals. Is it really possible that Golden State could top the worst collapse in NBA Finals history with an even worse one the very next year? Is “Blew a 3-0 lead?” destined to become the new “Blew a 3-1 lead?”
Almost certainly not. Oddsmakers have made the Warriors an 8.5-point favorite as of Sunday night, and Golden State has won its three home games against Cleveland this season by an average of 25.3 points.
Nevertheless, the Cavaliers can approach the next chapter in their latest comeback bid knowing that All-Star point Kyrie Irving has been at his best in elimination games. Irving was sensational in Game 5 last year, pouring in 41 points. He then famously drilled the go-ahead, title-clinching three-pointer in Game 7. And he badly outplayed Stephen Curry in Game 4 on Friday, scoring 40 points in Cleveland’s blowout win.
There’s two possible ways to frame this. If one believes, like James, that the Cavaliers are facing more pressure because they are on the brink, then that pressure is revealing Irving’s character as a cold-blooded assassin. If, however, one believes that the Warriors are facing more pressure because they must seal the deal, then Irving is fully savoring the opportunity to play with nothing to lose.
Either way, Irving sounded delighted. “It's a time to show everything that you're made of,” he said Sunday. “I always feel like if I do a great job of giving confidence in my teammates and remaining calm in the situation, then we have a great chance of coming out on the successful side. I have definitely failed a few times. But that doesn't affect me going in nor does it affect my mindset of leaving it all out there. There's no other option. You bring out everything that you have in your arsenal.”
While Irving is one of the least bashful stars in the NBA, he distils his electric, fearless offensive game to its purest form when facing the possibility of elimination. Here’s a quick look at how Irving’s numbers compare during his regular-season career, his postseason career and his four elimination games.
• Regular Season: 21.6 PPG, 5.5 PG, 45.7 FG%, 38.3 3P%, 17.3 FGA, 34.2 MPG
• Postseason: 23.9 PPG, 4.6 APG, 46.7 FG%, 41.4 3P%, 18.7 FGA, 36.3 MPG
• Elimination Games: 32.5 PPG, 3.5 APG, 53.3 FG%, 55.2 3P%, 23 FGA, 40.3 MPG
Has “Elimination Game Kyrie” officially reached the point of a trend? Cautious viewers would point to the small sample size: Irving has only made the playoffs three times, and his 2015 run was cut short by injury. Additionally, he has only appeared in four elimination games during his career, all against Golden State during the last two Finals.
Yet Irving’s elimination-game numbers perfectly match the eye test. With Cleveland’s season on the line, he plays more, he scores more, he shoots way more, and he shoots more efficiently on both twos and threes. Additionally, he registers fewer assists. Elimination Game Kyrie is the physical embodiment of “If I’m going down, I’m going down swinging.” In his terminology, Irving adopts the ”Mamba Mentality,” a reference to mentor Kobe Bryant’s oft-professed love for taking the final shot.
“That confidence has been echoed just throughout my whole persona,” Irving said Sunday. “Everything that I carry my whole life, I've had that. Just those moments, whether it be a success or a failure, you still have to be able to live with those decisions.”
The following chart helps illustrate how Irving leans more heavily on his own offense during the postseason compared to the regular season before becoming even more self-reliant in elimination games. All numbers are listed in per-48 minutes form.
Golden State faces an intriguing decision when it comes to defending Elimination Game Kyrie. Do the Warriors continue to play him straight-up in hopes that his scorching shooting, particularly from outside, regresses to the mean? Or, do they look to turn his determined scoring mentality into a weakness by paying him extra attention and trying to turn him into a passer? Or, do they simply trust that they can overcome a strong night from Irving if their own offense clicks like it did in Games 1 and 2 at home?
“He was brilliant the last two games, brilliant,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said Sunday. “We’ve got to do a little better job on him. But there's only so much you can do against certain guys. We'll try our best to make things a little tougher on him, with full awareness that he may go for 40 again.”
A few moments later, Kerr praised Klay Thompson for his determined defense against Irving, perhaps signaling a desire to continue forward with the same defensive approach. “One of our coaches said that [Klay] is like the yellow lab who just keeps chasing the ball like all day,” he said. “He doesn't think, he just chases Kyrie all day.”
Regardless of which approach they take, this much is clear: If the Warriors want to avoid an even more pressure-packed Game 6 in Cleveland, they must find a way to limit the damage done by Elimination Game Kyrie.