Cavaliers could use more from Kyrie Irving as series shifts to Cleveland

OAKLAND, Calif. -- The Cleveland Cavaliers stand at a crossroads once again on the NBA Finals stage, down 0-2 to the vaunted Golden State Warriors, and Kyrie Irving is in the middle of it all.

Do all the analysis you want to explain what has happened in the series thus far. The simplest explanation is also the most germane: The Warriors are playing with two league MVPs; the Cavs are playing with one.

The numbers for LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Irving through the first two games show Irving, the Cavs' 25-year-old point guard, lagging behind in this comparison of stars.

That's not to say Irving has been a no-show. But for the Cavs to defend their title they need plus performances at the top. And in the first two games, Irving did not have anywhere near the type of two-way impact that James, Durant and Curry had.

"Defensively, now he has to do a lot more," Cavs coach Tyronn Lue explained when asked to assess Irving so far. "Running around with Steph and chasing Klay [Thompson] and chasing Steph and constantly having to be on alert, it takes a lot of out of you offensively."

On the other end, the Warriors are hitting Irving with wave after wave of defenders.

"Just seeing a lot of bodies," Irving said. "They're obviously trying to make a few other guys make plays and when we're coming off our isolations, they're bringing a few more bodies to clog the lane. For us, just see the weakside action and be able to make the passes."

Finding their shooters, in theory, should be easier on the Cavaliers' home floor in Game 3. Cleveland shot just 19-for-60 from 3-point territory (31.6 percent) in the two games at Oracle Arena, nowhere near the 38.4 percent it shot as a team in the regular season when it was second best in the league.

Yet isolations are a big part of the Cavs' offense. And they make no apologies for it. Part of their game plan this series was to run pick-and-rolls that force the Warriors to switch on defense to find favorable one-on-one matchups for Irving and James to exploit

The opportunities for Irving have been fleeting. And when he did free himself to get shots up Sunday, many times he left his attempts short -- a telling sign of tired legs, surely overworked from the frantic defensive activity the Warriors were making him commit to.

The most damning stretch for Irving came in Game 2's third quarter, when the Warriors turned a three-point lead at the half into a 14-point cushion heading into the fourth. Irving went 1-for-5 in the quarter for two points with one assist. Meanwhile, Curry put up 12 points, seven rebounds and five assists on his way to a triple-double.

Sure, Irving was even worse to start the 2016 Finals through the first two games (36 points on 12-for-36 shooting, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, 0 blocks, 6 steals) and exploded with 30 points in Game 3 as the Cavs began their comeback. But that Warriors team had Harrison Barnes instead of Durant. The same Barnes who had 60 points in the entire seven-game series last year. Durant topped 60 for the series in the third quarter of Game 2.

"They're a different team," James said of the current edition of the Warriors. "You guys asked me, 'What was the difference?' And I told you. They're a different team."

And maybe it's asking too much to expect Irving to make up for that difference all on his own. However, it was James himself who entered Irving into the MVP conversation last season, placing Irving on that pedestal.

The truly elite players rise to the occasion against the best competition. Now would be an opportune time for Irving to establish he belongs in that group.

"They took care of home court. We understand that," Irving said. "Down 0-2, going back home, you have to live with those odds. You have to remain non-wavering. As I say, never waver in terms of whatever the outlook looks like. We understand who we are and we stay the course."