Kyrie Irving’s absence isn’t hurting the Celtics but it’s crushing LeBron James, Cavs

The Cleveland Cavaliers lost Game 2 to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals Tuesday night in spectacular fashion. A seven-point lead at the half disintegrated into a seven-point deficit entering the fourth quarter, which then turned into a 14-point hole with less than three minutes to play in regulation, leading to a 107-94 loss, putting Cleveland in a 2-0 bind that few teams recover from.

James did his part, finishing the game with 42 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists, his 22nd career postseason triple-double, but it was not enough to get the Cavaliers even in the series.

We’ve got to help ‘Bron,” JR Smith told reporters on Tuesday night after the loss. ”We can’t just expect him to do everything. As role players, we’ve got to play our role.”

Role players are part of the problem but there is plenty of blame to go around. Coach Tyron Lue’s most used lineup of James, Smith, Kevin Love, George Hill and Kyle Korver were outscoring opponents by 17.5 net points per 100 possession leading up to the series against Boston, but the Celtics have dominated that lineup, outscoring Cleveland’s starters by 21.1 net points per 100 possessions. The second-most frequently used lineup, which swaps in Tristan Thompson for Korver, is getting beat by 9.0 net points per 100 possessions. If only Cleveland had another superstar that could run the floor with James and Love in an effort to even things out. Oh wait, they did — Kyrie Irving — whose absence appears to be hurting Cleveland more than it has his current team, the Boston Celtics.

Irving was traded to the Celtics this summer and immediately made an impact. An all-star in 2018, Irving averaged  24.4 points, 5.1 assists and 3.8 rebounds plus shot 41 percent from behind the arc before a knee injury sidelined him in March for the remainder of the regular season and playoffs.

When Irving and James shared the court during the 2017 NBA playoffs, the Cavaliers scored 124.9 points per 100 possessions. This year that offensive rating has dropped to 109.8 with James on the court and declines even further to 94.4 during the 99 minutes James has been on the bench. Sure it’s a small sample size, but that offensive efficiency without James is worse than we saw from the Phoenix Suns, winners of Tuesday night’s draft lottery and holders of the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NBA draft, during the regular season. And since Cleveland’s defense, which at one point was one of the worst in the NBA, also took a step back, it is clear the Cavaliers don’t have enough firepower to make up the difference. The Celtics, meanwhile, scored 107.7 points per 100 possessions in Irving’s absence during the 2017-18 regular season.

Irving’s ability as a spot-up shooter who could also beat his man in isolation made him a formidable weapon for Cleveland in the regular season and playoffs, and it’s both those play types where the Cavaliers are having problems.

In the playoffs, its spot-up shooters are shooting 35 percent from the field, producing less than a point per possession — only the San Antonio Spurs were less efficient on these possessions this postseason. Love has been particularly bad (0.86 points per possession) as has Smith (0.94), James (0.94), Jose Calderon (0.82) and Rodney Hood (0.80). Not only has James been off the mark on these attempts, some of them are occurring so late in the shot clock he has no choice but to heave desperate attempts from way beyond the arc.

Boston, meanwhile, has excellent spot-up shooters in Terry Rozier III (1.4 points per shot), Marcus Morris (1.1) and Jaylen Brown (1.08), with Rozier producing an effective field goal rate of 74 percent on his spot-up opportunities, the fourth-highest rate among players taking at least 25 spot-up shots in the playoffs.

During last year’s run to the NBA Finals, Cleveland used both James and Irving in isolation, with Irving finding himself man-to-man almost 32 percent time, significantly higher than James played in isolation (23 percent). In 2018, James is going at it alone 29 percent of the time, making it the most-frequently used play type by James in the 2018 playoffs. In fact, James has used 114 postseason possessions in isolation this year, more than twice as many possessions as the rest of his team combined (55). Boston runs more isolation plays than Cleveland, but Coach Brad Stevens also spreads out the responsibilities more. Tatum leads the team this postseason with 54, followed by Morris (32), Rozier (31), Marcus Smart (21) and Al Horford (17).

It’s perhaps unfair to say all of Boston’s good fortunes are tied to the Cavaliers having one fewers star on their roster, yet it’s also clear that Boston had the talent to make up for the loss of Irving, whereas Cleveland did not. And now, James and the Cavaliers are left scrambling to find an answer. But they better find it quick: in the history of the NBA, teams that fall behind 0-2 in the conference finals have come back to win the series just six percent of the time.

“We have an opportunity to go back home, protect home court,” James said to the media after the game. “We’re going to use these days to really dive in on what needs to be done to help our ball club be successful. They did what they had to do, and that was protect home, and now it’s our time to try to do that, as well.”

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