“We ran out of talent. Tried as much as we could to try to make up for those guys but it’s a lot of talent sitting in suits.”
That was LeBron James after Game 6 of the NBA Finals last season, after his injury-ravaged Cavaliers fell short of delivering a long-awaited title to Cleveland. Playing without Kevin Love and with a hobbled Kyrie Irving, James tried his best Atlas impersonation, carrying the weight of the Cavaliers’ world on his broad shoulders. And even though he became the first player in NBA Finals history to lead both teams in points, rebounds and assists, it simply wasn’t enough.
Fast forward 11 months.
Cleveland is rolling, 10-0 in the playoffs heading into Saturday’s Game 3 and on pace to enter the NBA Finals with one of the most dominant scoring margins for a Finals-bound team. A year after leading the NBA in postseason minutes, James ranks outside the top 20 and is on track to enter the championship round far more rested than he has been at this stage.
Amazing what happens when the talent isn’t sitting in suits.
Irving in particular has taken the load off James with his scoring and shot-making. James has led the team in scoring three times in the playoffs; Irving has been the Cavaliers’ leading scorer in five of their 10 playoff games, including Games 1 and 2 of the Eastern Conference finals. In last season’s playoffs, James led Cleveland in scoring in 16 of 20 games.
But it’s not just that Irving is scoring, it’s how he’s scoring that is making life easier for James. Gone is the pressure to be the sole creator on offense.
Irving doesn’t need help getting his own shot, as was evident in Game 2, when 19 of his 22 attempts were off the dribble.
It’s Irving -- not James -- who is leading the team in usage percentage in the conference finals.
It’s Irving -- not James -- who is leading the team in drives to the basket in the conference finals. And he has been incredibly effective when doing so, as Cleveland is averaging a staggering 1.29 points per play off drives by Irving.
Irving’s uncanny shot-making ability was on full display in Game 2 as he shot better on contested shots (10 of 17) than when left open (1 of 5). And it’s not just in half-court isolation sets, either, as Irving has put the Toronto Raptors on their heels even more so than James.
Irving is 7-of-10 shooting in transition in the conference finals, those 10 shots in transition the most by any player in this series.
With Irving in command, it’s probably not much of a surprise that he took only one shot off a pass from James in Game 2. And if you’ve been watching this postseason, it’s probably not much of a surprise that he made it, either, as Irving is shooting 16 of 21 (76 percent) off passes from James in the playoffs.
This is Irving at his best: foot on the gas, taking and making tough shots and keeping defenses off balance. And when he’s doing those things, it makes everything else come easy.
Especially for LeBron James.