We’ll start things off with a compliment. While Irving and Love both struggled at times during this series, they found ways to make an impact beyond just scoring. Love continued to fight for boards and exert himself on defense. While Irving course-corrected his offensive approach at times, and also came up with clutch defensive plays.
That being said, both need to be better.
Kevin Love played 132 minutes in this series and came up with zero deflections. In the regular season Love would come up with 1.6 deflections a game, trailing only Irving, LeBron James J.R. Smith, and Iman Shumpert. While he has his defensive flaws, he can be disruptive at times when he is fully engaged.
Love was mostly a defensive positive this season, even if there are still situations that can give him problems. While his three point shooting was uneven for the series, it was encouraging to see him shoot 40.9 percent from deep for the series. Shooters will get hot, and they will go into slumps. But it’s important that Love continues to contribute on the boards and with hustle plays to ensure that he makes an impact at all times.
For Irving, this series was an example of why he can be maddening to some. He came up with a few big defensive plays that may have saved at least a game for the Cavs. He stripped Paul George of the ball on a two on one fastbreak. He got his hands in passing lanes and racked up the hustle stats. Irving came up with 8 loose balls over the series and had 15 deflections. Trailing only LeBron with 16 deflections, and far ahead of Deron Williams who came in third with 7 deflections. He even contested 8 shots per game, up from five 5 in the regular season.
But on the whole, Irving still needs to be better defensively. He still dies on almost every screen that is set and shows little ability to evade the pick. His good hands help make up for the fact that he has poor fundamentals, and his off-ball focus needs to be more consistent. When he’s engaged, he can come up with big deflections and steals. It’s evident that he studies film and anticipates plays, as we saw on Christmas Day against the Warriors, and in this series.
Irving isn’t like Isaiah Thomas, who’s frame will hold him back from ever being an effective defender. The tools are there, which is perhaps why he receives more flack than his peers. That, plus the added spotlight of being on a contender.
The shooting woes are fine, as Irving ultimately found ways to still be productive. He went 1-19 on three pointers that were classified as open, to wide open. Meaning a future opponent is probably in for some hot shooting in the near future. But for a player that has both shown growth as a leader, and indicated that he wishes to grow in that role he must hold himself to a higher standard.
The excuses are all there. Four coaches and systems in his first five years, a lost regular season as he returned from injury. Plus LeBron doesn’t necessarily provide an example of consistent defensive effort in the regular season. But LeBron has earned that right, and Irving needs to work his way up to that point. He needs to hold himself accountable and continue to grow his game.
There isn’t much more he can add to his game offensively. The improvement is going to have to come in maturity, focus, and decision making. He will always be compared to his peers that are older than him. But that’s because the brilliance he shows warrants comparisons to the league’s elite at his position. We’ve seen that at his best, he can outplay anybody at his position. But the reason others are viewed as above him come down to the work he puts in on a day to day basis.
While it’s evident that he can do so much more when he’s engaged, to change his bad habits it will require consistent effort over a prolonged period of time. With a competent backup now in Deron Williams, there is no excuse to be saving himself to the degree he has in the past.
The Golden State Warriors have assembled what is likely the most talented roster ever assembled. We know LeBron can help narrow that gap, but Irving and Love are going to need to elevate their play if they want to repeat. With the Finals beginning June 1, they have just over a month to get it right.