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Why Kyrie Irving Is Cavaliers' NBA Finals X-Factor

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMay 31, 2015

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The Cleveland Cavaliers' NBA Finals dreams live and die with LeBron James; we all know that. But Kyrie Irving has a vital role to play in his team's matchup with the seemingly unbeatable Golden State Warriors.

For Irving, it all starts on the defensive end, which is a strange place to begin for a player whose reputation as a stopper is, well, non-existent.

Slowing down Stephen Curry is a critical task, and though Irving may not always be the MVP's primary defender, he'll see minutes in that role. The Cavaliers would be wise to hide Irving on other matchups as often as possible, but as SB Nation's Mike Prada observes, the alternative locations aren't great:

Reggie Comma Mike Prada @MikePradaSBN

Wonder who Kyrie guards against the Warriors. Barnes? Warriors’ player movement is too good for him to rest.

Golden State will test Irving wherever he is, as Klay Thompson spends a great deal of his time running off screens and attacking on dribble handoffs. His height advantage (6'7") will allow him to punish Irving (6'3") in the post, and the same is true of the 6'8" Harrison Barnes.

On the other end, either Curry or Thompson will spend the bulk of the minutes defending Irving, and he must be a big enough threat to tire them out. We saw how guarding James Harden early in the Western Conference Finals taxed Thompson to the point his offensive game suffered.

So even if Irving's reputation suggests he can't defend either of the Warriors' backcourt starters, he can play a form of defense by wearing them down with relentless movement and attacking play.

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

In fact, his offensive game gives him a chance to impact not just Curry and Thompson but Golden State's entire roster.

The Dubs defenders stay home on three-point shooters, as evidenced by the 20.2 long-range attempts per game they've allowed in this postseason. Only the Portland Trail Blazers permitted a lower average in their abbreviated postseason stay, per NBA.com.

That means Irving won't find much in the way of help defense if he can penetrate past the Warriors' first level, making his finishing ability a key facet of Cleveland's success. Nothing will come easily with the elite rim defense of Andrew Bogut and the underrated presence of backup center Festus Ezeli, but Irving's regular season indicates he's better equipped than most to do damage against the trees.

He converted 58.2 percent of his attempts in the restricted area this year, the third-best mark among point guards who took at least five shots from that zone, according to NBA.com. Only Goran Dragic and Damian Lillard were more accurate.

Restricted-Area Field-Goal Percentage Among PGs in 2014-15
PlayerRA FGA Per GameRA FG%
Goran Dragic5.569.1%
Damian Lillard5.161.8%
Kyrie Irving5.058.2%
Jeff Teague5.057.6%
Michael Carter-Williams5.355.9%
NBA.com

With a few spectacular finishes like these from the acrobatic Irving, the Warriors might have to adjust their help schemes:

No team's defense was stingier during the regular season than Golden State's, and the Dubs' sheer versatility—they can play straight up and conservatively with Bogut or cause utter chaos with smaller, switch-happy units—makes them a monstrous defensive force.

When set, the Warriors defense is as good as it gets. The Cavaliers will rely on Irving to scramble things a bit.

That will entail attacking as often as possible in transition, but Irving's penetration in the half court will also be key. He must be decisive when James' drives produce kick-outs, and he'll have to turn the corner with purpose when the Warriors don't switch pick-and-roll coverage.

When mismatches arise, Irving has to strike like his team's life depends on it—mainly because it does.

If he can get into space and bend Golden State's defense, Cleveland has a chance to get the shots it desires: threes. The Cavs have attempted 29.1 treys per game during the playoffs, second only to the Warriors, per NBA.com.

At this stage of the postseason, against a defense this stout, you don't get long-range looks with basic ball movement. You have to force help and coax uncomfortable rotations by breaking into that coveted lane.

Irving is good at that.

Among players who drove at least as many times as he did this year, only four generated more points on drives per 48 minutes, per NBA.com.

Regular-Season Team Points Per 48 Minutes on Drives
PlayerDrives Per GamePoints Per 48 Minutes
Jeff Teague11.010.6
James Harden10.710.4
Michael Carter-Williams11.610.2
Tyreke Evans11.99.6
Kyrie Irving9.49.3
NBA.com

Cleveland's concern should be that Irving's effectiveness as a driver has dipped in the playoffs. The tendinitis in his left knee has clearly been an issue, but Irving sounds confident in his recovery, per Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon-Journal. "I'm in a good spot right now," Irving said. "I'm really happy, especially where I am. ... I'll be ready to go."

At worst, Irving can be a valuable spot-up threat. Even hobbled, he can knock down open looks.

But the Cavs will need more than another catch-and-shoot option.

If Irving's knee is right, he has a chance to crack Golden State's perimeter D. (A chance, mind you—the Dubs are good enough to potentially deny even a healthy Irving access to the paint.)

Getting into the lane could do wonders for the Cavs. The Warriors' bigs could get into foul trouble, and enough consistent penetration from Irving could pull help away from Cleveland's other three-point shooters.

This series is a big one for Irving, who hadn't even been to the postseason until this year, and whose best performances to this point had come in All-Star Games and three-point contests. Stepping up at this juncture could give the Cavaliers a puncher's chance against the heavily favored Warriors.

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

In the long term, a big effort from Irving on the absolute biggest stage would show the Cavaliers are in great shape as James moves deeper into his 30s. A true sidekick could prolong his prime by shouldering heavy loads when it matters most.

As much as we like to talk about the value of Irving or any other role player in important series, we all know Cleveland needs James to be dominant.

Nobody is in a better position than Irving to help LBJ now, and that makes him the Cavs' true Finals X-factor.

Grant Hughes covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @gt_hughes.

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