“Whether I have zero assists or 10 assists … there’s no implement or focus going in that I need to make more plays or get my teammates involved. I’m not going to do that anyway just by the style I play.”
This quote comes from Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving, said after his team’s Game 1 victory over the Toronto Raptors Monday night. The reason he was discussing his assist count was due both because of how he played in Eastern Conference semis opener as well as what had gone down in the previous series.
Irving had just finished off a 24 point, ten assist night against Toronto. He collected only 12 assists across the entire four-game series against the Indiana Pacers last round. While none of Cleveland’s victories against the Pacers were convincing, the opening bout against Toronto was far more lopsided than the 116-105 final score implied.
As a result, it made sense to ask Irving if his ramping up the ball movement had something to do with the Cavs putting forth a far more impressive performance overall. However, per the response above, Irving doesn’t seem to put much stock in the idea of emphasizing his passing.
I certainly understand the “I’m just going to go out there and be myself” stance. Irving is a four-time All-Star, so he has enough proof to know what he’s doing is working.
However, when you look at how Cleveland played as a whole both Monday and in last night’s Game 2 trouncing of Toronto, one thing has become clear – the Cavs are a much better team when Irving is distributing the ball.
Cleveland’s star point-guard one-upped himself last night, notching eleven assists to go along with his 22 points in a 125-105 blowout. The Cavs’ offense as a whole once again looked far more dominant than anything we saw in the series against Indiana. Gone was the bogged down isolation basketball, dribbling out the shot clock and watching everyone just stand around. Instead, Cleveland was whipping the ball all over the court, shooting the lights out and leaving the Raptors reeling as the series shifts to Toronto.
Was Irving’s assist count the sole source of Cleveland’s 54% shooting percentage last night? Not necessarily. That said, the Cavs have been humming on offense so far this series, and Irving favoring passing over dribbling the ball to death is a big reason why.
It’s no secret Cleveland plays better when the ball is moving. All you have to do is watch any game from late February until this past Monday to see what happens when the team relies on isolation basketball. It’s rarely pretty.
As the point guard, Irving is technically the facilitator. Sure, LeBron James has been known to take the reins of the offense. However, he’d much rather let Irving run the floor.
Such a strategy seems to derail a bit when Irving turns the night into a dribbling display. He often can’t resist hijacking the offense, hogging the ball and forcing his teammates to watch him move up and down the court in attempts to shed his defender.
While Irving is definitely skilled enough to make such a strategy work, the Cavs don’t seem to play as well when he spends most of the night doing this.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, we’ve seen plenty of evidence proving Cleveland plays its best when Irving is helping to move the ball and get teammates involved. The Cavs have numerous sharpshooters at their disposal, and when a player of Irving’s talent requires extra attention from opponents, one of them is going to end up wide open.
So, while Irving can wax poetically about how he’s not going to put extra attention on being a facilitator, it’s not hard to find confirmation of how effective said strategy can be. Likewise, last round’s unconvincing sweep of the Pacers is proof of how sluggish the offense can get when he refuses to pass the ball.
You can’t help but find the irony in Irving saying his assist count isn’t that important, then following it up with a game in which he tallied eleven. The hope is he’s starting to realize his facilitating has a huge impact on the outcome of the game.
Simply put, when Irving is a threat to score, the Cavs can be a great team. When he’s a threat to score or hit an open man, the Cavs can be deadly.
Casey Drottar is an independent sports writer. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook