At the end of the third quarter of Game 4, seven seconds remaining, the Detroit Pistons, down 76-78, ran an isolation play for Tobias Harris for what they hoped would be the last possession of the quarter. Harris, covered by Iman Shumpert, drove baseline before turning for a layup and a game-tying basket, 78-78 with one-quarter to go. Except that, there was still three seconds remaining. The Cavaliers inbounded the ball to Kyrie Irving, he took it to mid-court and heaved up a buzzer-beating logo-shot. Swish. Stan Van Gundy shook his head in disbelief as the Pistons ran to the bench. In the Game 4 sweep of the Pistons, it seemed like Irving could do just about anything he wanted. One-quarter later, he was embraced by his teammates after defending a missed three-point attempt from Reggie Jackson, calling out to the Palace, "bye, bye."
In the opening round of the playoffs, Kyrie Irving has played unbelievably well. He's averaging 27.5 points per game, the second-most for a single player in the playoffs this year. In two games at the Palace of Auburn Hills, he scored at 60.4% true-shooting, some of the best shooting in his career. He's turned the ball over just six times in four games and averaged 4.75 assists. It's a promising development for a season that has shown steady improvement, month-to-month, in his recovery from the knee injury that left him out of the Finals last year.
Using game log data from BasketballReference.com, I wanted to visualize just how noteworthy Irving's playoff performance has been. Plotting usage percentage versus a few scoring statistics (points, effective field goal percentage, and three-point percentage), two things are clear:
- Irving's usage percentage has visibly increased in his second season with LeBron James, especially in the playoffs (the larger plot points)
- Irving's game logs are above average in shooting and scoring when compared with regular season data from the past two seasons, as well as last year's playoffs.
It may not be surprising that a player's points total trends upwards with his usage percentage, but it's encouraging to see the increased role the Cavaliers have asked from Irving be met with an increased output. Many have been critical of Irving's failure to get other teammates involved in the offense. Many are quick to pull out the "shoot first" point guard label, or even just shooting guard. And the 4 assists he averages a game somewhat supports it. But looking at his usage with ball handling statistics (TOV% and AST/TOV ratio), Irving is protecting the ball fairly well in the playoffs. The turnover percentage has been below his two-year average in all four games in Detroit, and although a majority of his game logs have had below two assists per turnover, he's shown flashes of the 4-6 AST/TOV range including two this past week.
For the Cavaliers, having Irving at his best self for four games to start the playoffs is a best case scenario. The chemistry is clicking after a season marred by subtweets and coaching changes, and Irving has emerged as a scoring leader for the Cavaliers along with LeBron James and Kevin Love. With Tyronn Lue trying James for extended minutes with the second unit to start the second and fourth quarters, having "Playoff Kyrie" to captain the first unit and take over like he did for stretches in the past four games is unlocking the kind of potential that they all had hoped for back in the summer of 2014. Four great plot points on a scatter of over 180 games is an encouraging but limited data set, seeing if Irving can keep up this performance against the challenging defensive schemes that await him in either Atlanta or Boston will prove if "Playoff Kyrie" is for real or if this four-game sweep is just an outlier.