CLEVELAND -- Part of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ intended transformation process this season of turning a new group of individuals into a cohesive team involved the hope to pull off an “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition”-type renovation on the reputation of some of its key cogs.
Namely, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving were considered offensive maestros yet defensive dunces, and if the Cavs were going to achieve the success they aspired to, both would need to start getting some stops.
Fast-forward 15 games into the season, with the Cavs beating the Indiana Pacers 109-97 on Saturday while holding the Pacers to just 39.7 percent shooting -- extending their win streak to three games, in which their opponents have averaged just 86 points on 40.4 percent shooting -- and it appears that Cleveland has indeed done something about its defense.
Irving again outshined his point guard counterparts -- helping to hold Indiana’s Donald Sloan and C.J. Watson to a combined 3-for-14 from the field -- while putting up 24 points of his own on 9-for-17 shooting, matching the type of efforts he had in recent games against Washington’s John Wall and San Antonio’s Tony Parker.
“Going into my fourth year, it was just a conscious effort to have a better focus level on that end,” Irving explained. “It starts with that, and no matter who we’re playing against, guys are trying to stop me and I got to try to stop other guys. It’s just the attitude I have every single night. All the teams, their object is to stop me, so in the back of my mind it’s, ‘Why can’t I be a great defender? I don’t understand.’ It’s just all about effort. My first three years, it was just making excuses of offensive burden and all this other stuff, and at the end of the day I just have to do it for the greater good of our team.
"In order for our team to win, I have to be that kind of guy on the defensive end. You can only talk about it so long. At one point it just has to be done.”
Irving credited his turnaround to his summer spent with USA Basketball, an experience that Cavs coach David Blatt also cited as a reason for Irving’s improved 3-point shooting (he’s shooting a career-high 43.6 percent from deep).
“I just try to stay in front of the ball as much as possible so it’s not as much pressure for other guys to help me,” Irving said, emphasizing the importance of stopping dribble-penetration at the point of entry so the Cavs’ big men aren’t always being pulled away from their man or from the rim. “I’d rather help other guys and be in position to help and stop my guy instead of the other way around and always being ‘that guy’ on film. I was on film a lot the last three years [laughing]. You get tired of it after a while, so you want to be that guy that your teammates trust on a day-in, day-out basis.”
For Love, it’s all about the All-Star forward trusting the defensive schemes that the Cavs have in place, according to Blatt.
“In general, I would like to say, I think Kevin Love is playing the best defense of his career so far,” Blatt said. “He can get better like all of us can, but he’s doing a good job. He’s buying into the system, into the principles, and he needs to continue to do that and we need to continue to involve him in the way that we are.”
While Irving wasn’t shy about his desire to become a “great defender,” Love seems to know his limitations.
“I’ve never really been known for that in my career,” Love said. “Being a lockdown defender is something that I know I’ll never be, but as far as being a team defender, being in the right spots, being physical, doing those things, I can get a lot better at that and just continue to break down film and see where I can get better out there. So yeah, I think it’s something that I can continue to buy into and get better at.”
To Love’s point about his basic DNA as a player precluding him from being dominant defensively: While Irving’s timing and athleticism led to him having a game-high three blocked shots against the Pacers, Love’s less-than-Pterodactyl-like reach and earth-bound bounce has led to total of four blocks for him all season, ranking him 42nd among all power forwards coming into Saturday.
“I think [defense] is an area that I need to focus on and get better at,” Love said. “I think everybody has an opportunity to refine their game and get better in certain places, and for me, yeah, it could be that end of the floor.”
“Just taking pride of it,” James said of the defensive improvement. “Guys are taking their individual tasks very high, and that’s helped us.”