Good news guys, Cleveland has cracked the code to beating the Warriors and winning a championship.
No, it’s not about Kevin Love. It’s not their small-ball lineup either, though that was admittedly helpful. It’s about Kyrie Irving.
When Kyrie Irving passes, the Cleveland Cavaliers are nearly unbeatable.
This season, the Cavs are 10-2 when Irving finished with at least eight assists. Last season, they were 8-2. That 18-4 record is obviously impressive, but let’s dig a bit deeper.
All of Cleveland’s four losses over the past two seasons in which Irving finished with at least eight assists have been by single digits. Their overall point differential in those 22 games is +265. So on average, when Irving has at least eight assists, the Cavs win by 12 points per game. The Warriors had an average point differential of +10.8 per game. In other words, when Kyrie Irving passes, the Cavs play better than the Warriors.
The further down the rabbit hole we go, the more insane these numbers become. In the 12 games this season in which Irving had at least eight assists, the Cavs averaged 111 points per game. Only Golden State averaged more, and remember that they play at the league’s fastest pace while the Cavs are near the bottom of the league. They never scored fewer than 100.
Were they scoring those points efficiently or just playing faster? Well, they shot 47% from the field in those games (compared to 46% in the regular season overall), and 44% from three (compared to 36.2% in the regular season overall). The big takeaway here? Cleveland’s spacing improves drastically when Irving sees fit to pass.
The first half of Game 3 was essentially all of these trends in a bottle. In the first quarter, Cleveland’s offense was humming. Irving was passing, deferring to LeBron James as the primary ball-handler for most of their early run and letting the open man take good shots. Cleveland won the first quarter by 17 points. Everyone was touching the ball, Irving took mostly good shots. It was harmonious basketball.
And then in the second quarter, Irving sensed how hot he’d been earlier in the game and went overboard. Cleveland’s offense devolved into pure iso-ball and fell off of a cliff practically instantaneously. The Warriors won the quarter by nine points despite spending most of it without Klay Thompson. Had Stephen Curry been shooting at his normal rates, the Warriors easily could’ve grabbed back the lead.
There were obviously micro trends that helped Cleveland win Game 3. They switched far more on defense than they usually do, and it threw Golden State off of their game. Tristan Thompson rebounded better than he had in the first two games. Smaller lineups almost universally score more than bigger lineups, and LeBron should be playing power forward exclusively at this point in his career. And yes, Irving actually tried on defense, a 50/50 proposition even on good nights.
But the data is very clear on the macro front. The Cleveland offense is significantly better when Kyrie Irving passes. When he does, the Cavaliers win basketball games.