We’d run out of superlatives before we could effectively describe what happened last night in San Antonio. Kyrie Irving scored 57 points, almost half (27) in the final 17 minutes of the game. He forced overtime with an off-balance 3 off the dribble
, then gave the Cavaliers their first lead since the second quarter, with a short jumper and the foul, which he converted. It gave Cleveland a 116-113 advantage they never relinquished.
The game was one of the finest you’re likely to see during the regular season, akin to one of those classic Sugar Ray Leonard-Roberto Duran fights. There were relentless offensive flurries and hard-nosed defensive bursts in the first and second halves (respectively). But the constant throughout was the mano-a-mano between James/Irving and the Spurs’ old/young stars Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard.
The two tandems combined for 88 and 55 points respectively. In some sense it was a reprise of Heat/Spurs inasmuch as it matched the Cavs isolation-heavy offense against the Spurs’ ball movement offense, though the way the Cavs handled the pick and roll in the first half, the Spurs didn’t need to make too many passes.
The thing about Coach Blatt is that he changes the Cavs’ approach from game to game. Sometimes it’s more isolation, sometimes more pick and roll and every once in a while it’s a movement set. But of late he’s seemed quite happy betting that opponents can’t stop LeBron James or Kyrie Irving one-on-one and the results speak for themselves.
The comparison to Kyrie’s 55 point game against Portland immediately comes to mind. The thing about that game was that he had to carry most of the offense without LeBron on hand, and hence was much less efficient than Irving was last night. He scored his 57 on just 32 shots, as opposed to the 36 he took in January.
You’ll recall Irving hit 11 of 19 triples in the game, while last night he hit all 7 threes he took, four of them in the last 30 seconds of regulation and overtime.
“Kyrie Irving was unstoppable,” said San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich. “I don’t know how to guard that. We all know how talented he is, but he went to a new level tonight.”
In the fourth quarter, Blatt again sat Mozgov and Kevin Love, going with his small lineup featuring Tristan Thompson and James Jones up front for the final ten minutes. That allows the Cavs to switch on every pick and roll, with James taking the opponent’s “4,” in this case Duncan, whenever possible. (Nonetheless Duncan wound up isolated on little guys numerous times.)
Honestly, I hate the small lineup, in large part because it exposes the team’s already weak interior. Teams pound the offensive glass and exploit the frequent switches that put a wing on the big man and Thompson on a guard. Plus whenever a big takes Thompson to the hole because he’s undersized he doesn’t pose great D down low. (He’s much better switching onto wings on the perimeter.)
It’s sorta rock, scissors, paper; every lineup has its strengths and weaknesses. I’d rather we force teams to adjust to our size than we adjust to theirs. But Blatt’s used the small lineup pretty effectively (and frequently) since the All-star break. We’ve gotten clobbered in the paint and on the boards with this lineup (see Toronto, Atlanta), but we’ve also won, which is sorta the most persuasive argument of all.
The chattering media class and sports talk junkies can agitate for more Kevin Love, but when you already have a Lamborghini Veneno Roadster and a Hennessey Venom GT, you don’t have as much use for a Porsche 918 Spyder. You need an SUV to pick up the groceries and take the kids to practice and recitals.
Of course come playoff time that could potentially change. Much of those easy points out of transition, slow rotations to 3 shooters and uncontested midrange jumpers tend to dry up in the playoffs forcing teams to rely on post-up and ball movement, especially in series’ where opponents get to really know your sets. Love’s post-up game may be extraneous now, but now’s not playoff time.
It’s certainly worth noting that as soon as Love finally got into the game during overtime that he made a nice defensive play after switching onto Tim Duncan, forcing him to miss. That miss was followed by Kyrie hitting the “and one” that gave the Cavs the lead. He also assisted on the James three a moment later.
Winning solves a lot of problems, and Love looked excited after the game. He was one of the first to put his arm around Kyrie and congratulate him at game’s end. Still, hard to imagine what’s going through his head watching James Jones eat up his minutes without producing an appreciable boxscore contribution (0-1 FG, 2-2 FT, 4 PF, 2 PTs – Zero rebounds, assists, blocks in 20 minutes).
The Cavaliers started the game with assists on eight of their first nine baskets. These included a down pick that freed Love for a free throw line touch he used to find Irving for his first hoop. They ran a couple pick and rolls with J.R. Smith which yielded a Love 3 and this LeBron cut that yielded a dunk. Look how had this is to defend (excusing the fact that we know Smith to be a poor finisher).
They’d have assists on but four of their next 18 hoops through the end of the third quarter. While the idea of having three-point shooters around a Kyrie or LeBron is with the idea that they will drive and dish, or that the players will hit their shots. Neither happened so much last night. After a Mozgov putback to start the third quarter, nobody on the team scored a basket other than James, Irving, or Thompson for the rest of the game.
Of course, with the way Irving in particular finishes so well, it almost seems pointless to have the customary three long-range shooters on the floor with him. Seriously, what’s one more guy in the paint when he goes by them like so many orange pylons?
It seems you could play Thompson and Mozgov together with Kyrie simply because he’s so creative at the hole making rim protectors a lesser concern. Irving’s also good at dumping it off to guys close to the basket as opposing bigs switch over
Anyway, back to the game. It was played with such a brisk pace that five minutes weren’t gone and the two teams had combined for 31 pts. The Spurs hit eight of their first nine, at least half of them well-contested. Then the D started to take hold on both sides. There were some lapses here and there – an absent rotation on Danny Green’s second 3 – but mostly it was Spurs’ good offense.
The Spurs were screening the roll cover man prior to the pick and roll so he was out of position to deal with Tony Parker coming off the pick. They were running double screens up top so Kyrie had to run into two guys chasing Tony Parker around.
When a player was coming to meet a pass you can bet he brushed across one or two screens on his way to meet the ball. Yup, the Spurs run actual plays, and it’s pretty cool to watch. They found mismatches and posted-up Kawhi Leonard on J.R. Smith, Boris Diaw on James Jones and Tony Parker on Matthew Dellavedova.
The Spurs sort of took what the Cavs gave them. When Mozgov was in they ran him into guys and tried to get him switched onto guards who then were able to get open pull-up jumpers. Against Thompson, the Spurs tried to get to the rim, especially when Jones was the power forward. By the fourth quarter, James was playing the power forward defensively on many possessions.
In the second half the Cavs played with even greater purpose on defense. Unfortunately so did the Spurs. The Cavs were 6-22 in the third quarter, while San Antonio was 8-16. The halfcourt defense was very good in the third but the team had continued to have problems in transition.
The Cavs seem to have some issues picking up their guy during transition and get sucked into the middle yield lots of trailing transition triples, as on this play.
The eye-test said that the insertion of Iman Shumpert into the game for Smith late in the third and did not leave. His play (team best +11) seemed to make the biggest difference on the floor. He spent some time on Leonard who scored only 3 of his 24 points after Shumpert entered. But he also spent time on Parker. His versatile defense is going to key this team in the post-season, mark my words.
Now with three minutes left the Cavs were down ten and hope looked lost. (File this away for later this sseason.) The Cavs gave up a hoop to Duncan when a switch put Shumpert on him, but LeBron and Thompson but six points around that (including two key free throws by Thompson) to cut it to six 107-101 with 1:44 left.
It would still be a six-point margin with 33 seconds left. Kyrie cut that to three with a corner three that he hit right in Danny Green’s mug. Then Parker had Thompson switch onto him on the pick and roll, which Blatt likes, however, it takes the team’s best rebounder away from the boards, and sure enough Kawhi Leonard grabbed the board over Kyrie Irving to seemingly salt away a victory. Then he missed both free throws – just as LeBron did a few weeks back against Houston.
That opened the door for Kyrie to his this ridiculous shot, his 46th point.
Though the Cavs allowed the Spurs six offensive rebounds during the last six and a half minutes of the game playing that small lineup, they still pulled out a victory, thanks both to LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. Everyone else managed but 40 points.
Here are all twenty of Kyrie’s baskets.
It’s a huge win for the Cavaliers and has to establish them as a Finals favorite, Hawk, Smawks. While the iso-heavy play can be a little tiresome, if the opponents can’t stop it, then don’t stop doing it.
The Cavs have two more games left on the road trip, the Magic on Sunday and Miami the next day. I’ll be tweeting live video and commentary during both games, You can follow me on Twitter @CRS_1ne. You can read my analysis the day after the game here on the Cleveland Scene blog.