David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
Kyrie Irving had the worst game of his career against the San Antonio Spurs, and it's no accident why it happened. We break down the Spurs' defensive strategy on the Cavaliers' high-scoring all-star.
In a night of uneventful NBA action, the best game happened in Cleveland. Thanks to a Kawhi Leonard three-pointer with 2.9 seconds left, the San Antonio Spurs escaped with a 96-95 victory in their first game with stars Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili all healthy.
In many ways, the Spurs were lucky to escape. Dion Waiters went off for 20 points, Tyler Zeller scored 16 on 10 shots and Duncan in particular looked really rusty offensively. There were a lot of things the Spurs did wrong, including some poor execution of their normally pristine misdirection offense that I discussed here.
But there's one thing the Spurs did better than anyone has ever done in the past two years: defend Kyrie Irving.
This was Irving's line last night:
2-15 from the field, six points, two free throw attempts, seven assists, two turnovers, five personal fouls, zero field goals in the game's final 40 minutes.
Irving's had a few duds in a remarkable one-and-a-half year career, but never has he been that bad in a game. Why did he play so poorly? Watching the tape, it's clear the Spurs had a sound defensive strategy executed to perfection.
The key to containing Irving is to, literally, contain him. He's too good a ball-handler to pressure too closely, and he's also too good a shooter to just lay off. The only way you have a chance is to box him in between the three-point line and the basket and force him to shoot mid-range jumpers. You have to do this with all five defenders chipping in, not with just one guy.
In Wednesday's game, the Spurs did just that.
For starters, take a look at this side pick and roll late in the first quarter. The Spurs "down" the screen, which is a fancy way of saying that they try to force the ball-handler toward the baseline.
What makes this coverage different from most, though, is just how far Duncan is hanging back. The Spurs don't want to trap Irving on the baseline, and in many ways they don't even mind if he is able to come back to the middle. They just don't want him getting to the basket on either side.
In this case, Irving does get back to his right, but Duncan has positioned himself perfectly. He's close enough to contest a mid-range jumper, but he also has cut off Irving's angle to the hoop.
In the end, Irving is forced to settle for a free-throw line jumper that the Spurs contest well.
It's as if the Spurs are literally trapping Irving in a square box that's 3-4 feet on all sides. Irving can't escape going towardthe hoop, nor can he escape going right or left.
Here's another example on a pick and roll that was initiated by Irving coming off a baseline screen.
Notice how Parker is trailing Irving on this play. To the Spurs, it doesn't really matter that Parker is going to be run into that Cavaliers screen. They want to spring the mouse trap and box Irving in, and having Parker trail the screen helps provide the bait. Look at what results.
It's a brilliant ploy by the Spurs. Parker pressures Irving from behind, Tiago Splitter hangs back to prevent dribble penetration and Danny Green has even pinched over from the opposite side to provide additional support. Splitter and Green are not really anywhere close to Irving. They're containing him as Parker pressures. In the end, this is the best Irving can do with this play.
Tired from fending off the Spurs' defense, Irving misses.
Here's yet another example, this time on a side pick and roll on the right side. Again, notice how Parker darts behind Irving instead of going underneath the ball screen.
This is the same formula as the earlier side pick and roll. Duncan doesn't trap, instead choosing to hang back and prevent Irving from driving. This, ultimately, is what results.
Perhaps Irving could have done more to go by Duncan to the basket, but Duncan is in perfect position to cut that off. It would have been really hard for Irving to get around Duncan, even with a quickness advantage.
Of course, there was also some fantastic individual defense from Parker in isolation situations. For example, look at how he contains Irving on this 1-4 flat play with less than two minutes to go.
And there was also this defense on the Cavaliers' final play:
But mostly, the Spurs contained Irving with a well-executed defensive scheme that relied on multiple people to force Irving to take the shots they wanted.
While other teams may not have someone as intelligent as Duncan to help on pick and rolls, they too can contain Irving by trying to box him in at the free-throw line extended. It remains to be seen if anyone can replicate this strategy against the Cavaliers' all-star going forward.