LeBron James is the best player in basketball, but that means he's a known commodity. Kyrie Irving will have to be at his best for the Cavaliers to take home a second straight title. Will he?
Kyrie Irving has never been outplayed by a point guard for an entire playoff series. The 2015 playoffs saw him play worlds better than Isaiah Thomas and Derrick Rose in rounds one and two. Kyrie only played two games against the Hawks in round three before breaking his kneecap in overtime of game one of the Finals. That's two full series and two dominant performances.
The 2016 playoffs saw Kyrie shoot Reggie Jackson out of the gym in round one, take his pick of Teague and Schroder in round two (Kyrie went 12-18 on three-pointers in this round), and average almost two steals a game vs. Kyle Lowry in round three. Lowry and Irving's stats were comparable in the series, but Irving had the edge thanks to the Cavs winning the series convincingly. In the Finals, Kyrie Irving averaged more points, assists, and steals than back-to-back MVP Stephen Curry while shooting a better percentage in every category. In game seven, Curry was 4-14 on three-pointers while Irving went 2-5, including one pretty memorable one.
This year has been a bumpier road but the same results. Jeff Teague played well in round one while Kyrie struggled to find his shot. The Cavs won in four. Irving started to pull it together against Toronto when Lowry got hurt, then Isaiah Thomas hit the sidelines when Kyrie went supernova in the Boston series. If you want to say Teague outplayed Kyrie in a series, I see the argument on paper, but watching the series it never felt that way. Plus, the Cavs won.
Add these up and Kyrie is playing in his 10th full playoff series without being the worse of the two point guards in that series.
For Cleveland, Kyrie Irving needs to keep that up in the Finals.
Inexplicably, Irving has been borderline terrible when scoring out of the pick and roll so far in the playoffs. During the regular season, he averaged over 0.9 points per possession (PPP) as the pick and roll ball-handler. In the playoffs, that number has dropped to 0.7 - the baseball equivalent from a 3.50 ERA to a 6.00 ERA (it's baseball season, after all).
That number is concerning, but there's good news: Kyrie Irving is too good for that trend to continue. He has only made about 35% of his shots out of the pick and roll despite making 47% of them in the regular season. His shots will start to fall. We know this because as sure as the sun will come up tomorrow, Kyrie Irving gets buckets.
As I mentioned here, the Cavs are exceptionally talented in one-on-one situations (Kevin O'Connor at The Ringer wrote about this while I was drafting this article). In the playoffs, these situations become more valuable as the games tend to slow down and physical play increases. In a lot of NBA Finals, the scores dip, the whistles get swallowed, and guys have to create shots out of nowhere.
Can you think of two guys who you'd rather have creating shots than Kyrie Irving and LeBron James?
There are eight players who have averaged more than 1.2 PPP on isolations in the playoffs. Five of them did it 20 times or fewer, one did it 59 times (DeMar DeRozan, who averaged 1.322 PPP in 10 games), and the other two are the Cavaliers' superstars. Lebron is 8th best at 1.202 on 89 possessions. Kyrie Irving is 6th best at 1.241 on 87 possessions.
The Cavs keep doing this because it's working. Over and over again, the Cavs are proving that they have the best shot-creators in the NBA. What's more, Lebron (as shown in that Ringer article) uses isolations as passing opportunities as well as scoring. So let's get back to Kyrie.
37 players have isolated more than 10 times in the post-season. Kyrie has the 7th lowest turnover rate at under 5%. Keep in mind that those 37 guys are shot-creators or ball-handlers. The only guys better than him are guys like Isaiah Thomas, Chris Paul, Zach Randolph, and Manu Ginobili. Remarkably, Irving's 4.6% turnover rate is identical to his rate in the regular season.
Regarding that 1.241 PPP on 87 isolations, it would be 9th best of anyone in the NBA over the course of the entire regular season (minimum 10 attempts, which is a tiny sample size). Irving's isolation scoring efficiency is significantly better than any team's fastbreak scoring efficiency from the regular season.
In short, Kyrie has been devastatingly effective. He can do anything on offense - we saw him average 8.5 assists in the Toronto series, he's scored 28+ four times in the playoffs, and he's only turning the ball over 2.5 times per game.
If Kyrie Irving plays how Kyrie Irving can play, there's a pretty good chance he outshines Stephen Curry. If that's the case, Cleveland has two of the three best players in the series. How can Golden State beat that?
If the 2016 Finals are any indication, they can't.