Kyrie Irving’s abilities on the court sometimes make him appear super human. The way he moves, accelerating and decelerating, finding angles and gaps that appear and disappear before most players would even recognize they exist. He appears to have the ball on a string, showing it to his defender before pulling it back and dribbling over, under, and around the laws of physics on his way to another highlight. We laugh about his flat-Earth theory, but with the angles he’s able to take off the glass, is it a surprise he lacks respect for the basic idea of gravity? The culmination of these talents is that Irving doesn’t just make something out of nothing, it’s that he takes what is widely considered a bad shot and makes it good.
The NBA world has shifted away from isolation ball in favor of ball movement and motion offenses. Gone are the days of one player dribbling the air out of the ball, sizing up a defense, and attacking at the rim or in mid-range. Kyrie’s throwback style leaves him on an island in the NBA—and that’s exactly where he thrives. Irving can make a lockdown defender feel like he’s in solitary confinement. His ability to take what is normally an inefficient play at score at a high level gives the Cavaliers an outlet to score when things break down. A skill that comes in handy, say, in the final seconds of Game 7 of the NBA Finals.
But, in this year’s playoffs, Irving’s super power has left him. Irving, a career 46 percent shooter, is shooting a paltry 40 percent in this year’s playoffs. In a twist that would keep Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey up at night, Irving’s struggles have come at the rim and behind the three point line.
While Kyrie’s rate on two-pointers has dipped (46 percent compared to his regular season rate of 51 percent) with his struggles at the rim, he has been able to maintain a level of efficiency through his elite mid-range game and a jump in his ability to hit floaters outside of the restricted area. It’s been behind the three-point line that has caused Irving the most trouble. Normally an elite shooter from beyond the arc, the point guard’s 40 percent rate during the regular season has fallen to 28 percent in the playoffs.
Looking deeper, Irving’s struggles from three have come almost entirely on pull-up attempts when isolating his defender. Normally a deadly part of his game, Irving’s ability to create just enough space to launch a shot from deep at a high rate is not only essential to maintaining his efficiency, but also on opening up other parts of his game. Defenders have to respect the pull-up, opening gaps and lanes for Irving to get to the rim. That ability has not been there in this year’s playoffs.
As you can see, Irving is shooting at a high rate when in catch-and-shoot situations or within ten feet of the rim, but when pulling up, he’s not firing at his normal level. As shown below, Kyrie is normally deadly when handling the ball in an isolation-type situation, but that has disappeared in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
To exacerbate this problem, Irving is using a higher percentage of possessions, with his usage rate (possessions that ended with him taking a shot, turning the ball over, or getting fouled) increasing from 31 percent in the regular season to 34 percent in the playoffs. This increased rate has come at the expense of others in the offense, as Kevin Love’s usage rate has dropped from 26 percent in the regular season to 20 percent in the playoffs. Using more possessions on its own isn’t the problem, but Irving appears to be trying to work himself out of this funk by going more and more pull-up threes.
Long a proponent of Irving increasing the rate at which he takes threes, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And while it hurts to lose possessions to Irving working through his slump, finding your stroke on an inefficient shot isn’t exactly going to be pretty. Irving has the type of game that makes bad plays look good, so when his normal game fails him, it is more jarring than watching someone with a more traditional game miss open looks. The good news is that Irving is not turning the ball over at a high rate, and his assist numbers have maintained at his fantastic regular season rate.
There’s likely no reason to worry about Irving. He’s complained of knee pain in recent weeks, and the rest between series should help him recover from that. An elite shooter for his career, it’s unlikely this eight-game sample is representative of what we’ll see in future series. If we’ve learned anything about Irving over his career in Cleveland, it’s that he saves his best performances for when they matter most, and the Cavaliers have not needed his heroics through two rounds of the playoffs. But as the Cavaliers move towards the Finals, opponents will attempt to pick at every weakness and isolate any advantage they can garner.
That’s when Kyrie is at his best.