Kyrie Irving is always going to look for his shot. Asking Irving not to score is like asking Richard Jefferson to quit Snapchat — it’s just not going to happen.
But, over the past two games, Irving has taken a different approach and taken on a different role. So far in the playoffs, sans brief outbursts like his 15-point third quarter in Game 3, his shot isn't consistently falling; he's shooting 40.6 percent from the field and 28.3 percent from three in six postseason games.As he’s struggled to do what he does best, he’s passing and looking for his teammates in ways he often doesn’t.
Here, he makes the simple read and passes to a wide-open Kevin Love where he otherwise may have tried to force a drive:
And here, he uses his dribble to carve out space for Channing Frye, who proceeds to splash a three:
Irving — after having zero assists in Game 4 against the Pacers, although his teammates were 0-6 on shots that would have been assists, per nba.com — has had back-to-back double-digit assist games vs. Toronto. Game 1, where he had 10, was a playoff career high. He followed it up by setting a new career high again with 11 assists in Game 2. He also had back-to-back 20 point, 10 assists performances for first time in his career.
"Kyrie's been great at making the right play," Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said after Game 2. "They're trying to take it out of his hands. He's making the right pass, the right play."
This development is something that, maybe, should have been expected to a degree. In the regular season, Irving averaged 5.8 assists per game — his best average since LeBron James came back — against 2.5 turnovers. And on the highest usage rate of his career, Irving posted his highest assist percentage of the second LeBron era.
It’s worth noting, again, that Irving is playing a role that is a mix of point guard and shooting guard; he is not playing the same role as John Wall or Chris Paul. With LeBron dictating the Cavs’ offense so often and being the passer he is, the need for Irving to be a traditional, pass-first point guard isn’t there. And the Cavs’ pick-and-roll heavy style only leans into Irving’s natural tendency to shoot first. When Cleveland runs a play with Irving, it’s most often setting him up to score first and pass second.
That, though, does not mean Irving shouldn’t be passing more and creating for others more. At times, he does lock himself into a phone booth against certain defenders. And he will over-dribble at times. He is more Kobe Bryant than LeBron; that’s not always a good thing.
But when Irving blends his two personas, it has interesting implications for the Cavs. For one, his passing can make the Cavs’ offense more fluid and less predictable. More importantly, his passing could help solve a long-standing Cavs problem: how the team plays when LeBron sits.
During the regular season, the Cavs were 8.6 points worse per 100 possessions with LeBron off the floor per basketball-reference.com. In the playoffs, they are 22.9 points worse per 100 possessions per basketball-reference. With James now playing 40 minutes plus each night, there are just a few moments where Cleveland must survive. And that might not matter against the Raptors, Celtics or Wizards. But it will against the Warriors, where the Cavs’ margin of error will be slim if the teams meet in a third straight finals.
With James off the floor, Irving tends to try to do it all himself; call it the phone-booth complex. This Irving, one who leverages what he does into open looks for others, can help Frye and others get looks and then maybe create more room for himself. If that, plus some defensive effort, results in Cleveland hanging even or maybe slightly ahead while LeBron sits, that’s a win.
And at some point, Irving will start hitting shots again. If he does that, and continues to set up his teammates, this might be the best Irving has played yet.
"[When] we become stagnant we're a different team than when we're playing at a high pace and high energy," Irving said. "The ball seems to hop and it seems to find the open shooter every single time. The selflessness starts to go throughout the team and we all start to feel really good. But myself and Bron, when we're attacking consistently down, every time down and putting pressure on the defense we're going to get our teammates open shots and if the defense doesn't respect us collapsing them all in then we are going to score. We just play the game the right way and try to do that on a consistent level."