The world champion Cleveland Cavaliers seem convinced they’ll need All-Star guard Kyrie Irving to reinvent himself to have the best chance of defending their title.
Coach Tyronn Lue has taken to assigning Irving the added responsibility of defending the other team’s starting point guard, and it’s become painfully clear the change in strategy is still a work in progress.
Take Monday night’s 103-74 demolition in San Antonio, where a usually channeled and totally engaged Irving appeared distracted from the very start.
He finished the night with just eight points, only the second time all season he hasn’t reached double-digits, and the champs managed just 34 points after halftime in finishing with a season low 74, never scoring more than 22 in a quarter.
“It’s a lot of pressure to have him be one of our scorers and then having to guard the best player on the other team,” Lue admitted even before the Cavs were blown out in San Antonio. “It’s tough, but it’s part of the NBA. Every night he’s going to have a tough matchup, along with those (other point guards). They’ve got a tough matchup when they have to guard him so just have to step up and do it.”
Monday night’s debacle came just hours after Wizards guard John Wall torched Irving and the Cleveland defense for 37 points and 11 assists in a 127-115 road win for Washington. A few nights earlier, Charlotte’s Kemba Walker also befuddled the Cavs, finishing with 28 points and five assists to cap a two-game stretch where opposing point guards lined up across from Irving racked up 65 points on well over 50 percent (34 for 51) shooting.
Overall, five teams have now topped 120 points against the Cavs during the month of March and the team is now officially the league’s second-worst defensive team since the All-Star break.
With the Cavs now trailing the Boston Celtics for the overall top-seed in the Eastern Conference, even LeBron James recently felt compelled to weigh in on the clear and apparent slippage.
“We just got to figure it out and continue to see what fits our group, see what fits our lineup, see what fits our team as a whole and what’s going to give us the best shot to win each and every game,” he said. “Like I said, you can’t base last year on this year.”
The lineup change involving Irving was necessitated by J.R. Smith’s return to action from a thumb injury. While he was away, the team fell into the habit of having either DeAndre Liggins or Iman Shumpert guard the opposing point guard.
Part of that plan was also about keeping Irving fresh and as rested as he can be for the Cavs’ postseason run and defense of their crown by not having him have to fight through all the screens and assert all the energy typically associated with having to guard the other team’s point guard.
However it plays out and no matter what he is asked to do, Irving insists he will find a way to be the same player he’s always been.
“It doesn’t change anything,” he said. “Offensively and defensively, it’s the same mindset. Our rules that we stick to with whatever point guard that we’re playing against, we just got to stick to our defensive gameplan if those guys are making shots and we go into a blitz action and try to stop them a little bit. But when they’re hitting outside shots, hitting their midrange shots, they’re tough to contain. On the flipside, I still got to stay aggressive offensively and get my teammates involved.”
[Featured Image by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images]