Kyrie Irving in the Clutch: an All-Star argument

Jan 22, 2013; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving (2) makes a layup while being fouled by Boston Celtics small forward Paul Pierce (34) in the fourth quarter at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

If there ever was a time for Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving to make an All-Star-worthy statement, Tuesday night against the Boston Celtics was the right time to do it. He has played at the same level of top-tier NBA stars, and this is most clear once the fourth quarter begins. Boston head coach Doc Rivers said it best Tuesday after the game:

And then the fourth quarter, we didn’t get much better offensively, and Kyrie Irving happened.

And to put the icing on the cake, Rivers also mentioned that he voted for Irving to go to the All-Star Game in Houston.

By now it’s known across the Association that Irving may be the biggest threat, especially among point guards, after the third quarter buzzer sounds. In his postgame interview on Tuesday night, Irving credited his fourth quarter successes to observing the opposing defense for the first three quarters and then attacking the opponent’s weaknesses in the final 12 minutes. He “remembers” plays that the defense runs, and then “exploits” them in crunch time situations. Irving’s memory is impressive, and his attack scheme works on so many different levels down the stretch.

There was a lot to take away during postgame interviews from the win against the Celtics. After a reporter told head coach Byron Scott that, “Kyrie in the fourth was pretty good.” Scott’s response to this statement was spot on:

I thought in the first (quarter) he was pretty good, in the second he was pretty good (and) the third he was pretty good too. So, he was pretty good.

But what I loved hearing even more than the abovementioned Scott quote was what he had to say about letting Irving’s game do the talking in any All-Star debate. Scott said, “I thought it was pretty loud and clear tonight.” Then there was the gem of all lines, when Scott boldly proclaimed, “If you look at the point guards in the Eastern Conference, name me one that’s having a better season (than Irving). I’ll wait.”

Irving totaled 19 points in the final quarter on Tuesday night, outscoring the entire Boston team by two points. We all know that Kyrie is clutch and is among the league’s premier scorers, but how key down the stretch is he compared to last season? Should he deserve to start for the Eastern Conference All-Star Team or even be on the team altogether? Irving’s clutch statistics, according to 82games.com, are down from last season. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that Irving has lost the ability from his rookie to sophomore season to come up big for his team; it only means that he is managing the game differently from a team-oriented standpoint. He’s still scoring at a relatively high clip in the fourth, but clutch time differentiates from the final frame in three distinct ways: it can occur in the fourth quarter or overtime, with less than five minutes remaining and neither team ahead by more than five points.

82games broke down the production per 48 minutes of clutch time for the 2011-12 season, and found out that Irving was the most effective player on the court in more ways than one. He topped the list with 56.4 points per 48 minutes in the clutch, beating out the next best player, Kevin Durant, by almost six whole points. In the 24 games and 78 minutes that counted as clutch time last season, his three-point shooting was an outstanding 66.7 percent (fourth in the NBA) and his shooting from the field was an admirable 54.4 percent. And we all know how good he was from the charity stripe with the game on the line, mainly from his game-winning performance against the Sacramento Kings. Irving shot 89 percent from the free throw line in dire situations.

 

Jan 22, 2013; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving (2) shoots over Boston Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo (9) in the fourth quarter at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

In the same per 48 minutes scenario, Kyrie’s numbers have dipped in his sophomore season. He is attempting more shot attempts in the clutch (33.4 FGA vs. 35.8 FGA), but is only converting at a 35.4 percent clip from the field. He is also converting from the charity stripe less often (15.2 FTM vs. 12.7 FTM) and scoring less per 48 minutes with a mark of 42.5 points.

This season is a slightly different story for Irving in regards to production. Last season we saw the reigning Rookie of the Year slicing his way to the hoop with the game on the line and little time left on the clock. This season, Irving has focused on creating or settling for jump shots – 73 percent of his shot attempts in clutch time have been jump shots. Last season he was even keel with his shot selection, attempting 49 percent of clutch shots from close range with an eFG% of 71.4 percent. This season only 27 percent of his clutch shots have been close attempts, with an eFG% of 46.2 percent.

In regards to at what point in the shot clock that Kyrie takes the majority of his shot attempts, he has increased his percentage within the first 10 seconds of the shot clock by 15 percent. At the same time, Kyrie is attempting 4 percent more shots within the final 21-24 second range, but is shooting at a much lower clip. In his rookie season, Irving boasted an eFG% of 66.7 percent in the final four seconds of the shot clock compared to an eFG% of 28.6 percent this season.

While Kyrie is down in most scoring and shooting statistics in the clutch this season, he has been much more efficient in areas involving his team. You could tell from yesterday’s post-game interview that Irving is concerned with the team’s performance more than anything else. He would always divert questions regarding his 40-point outpouring against the Celtics to the victory that the Cavaliers, as a team, recorded. He is averaging 6.0 assists per 48 minutes this season, which is 2.5 assists greater than last season’s mark. He has also managed to only turn the ball over twice in crunch time. His “hands” rating (measures passing in the clutch) is at 12.2, which is currently 0.3 better than last season. Irving also already has more assists in clutch time than all of last season.

Let’s be fair; Kyrie Irving hasn’t had as many chances to be “clutch” this season, but when he has had the opportunity, he’s ran with it. We’ve seen what he can do in the fourth quarter, but he’s been going at it at a different approach as you can see by the clutch statistics provided by 82games. As he becomes more acquainted with perimeter shooting when the game is on the line, we will see these numbers skyrocket. Think of all the games that Kyrie helped his team win in the 2011-12 season; his shot attempts were all at or near the basket. Like he said himself, he looks at the best ways to exploit the defense in the fourth quarter all by memory. He’s learning which specific teams he can attack from the outside, and that is beyond impressive for a 20-year old.

His experimentation in the clutch this season will yield eye-popping results in the future, and is putting up All-Star numbers so far this season – averaging 23.7 points, 5.7 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 1.8 steals, while shooting 46.7 percent from the field, 39.9 percent from three and 84.1 percent from the free throw line. Irving is also tops in the league in isolation scoring, being the only player that has shot over 50 percent in the aforementioned situation. Among point guards, Kyrie ranks first in scoring and seventh in field goal percentage and fifth in three-point percentage for point guards averaging over 20 minutes. Although Rondo ranks first in the league in assists per game, he trails Kyrie in scoring (19th) and shoots 24.5 percent from beyond the arc.

Even Doc Rivers agrees with me on this one. Kyrie Irving should be in the All-Star Game. I’ll take it a step further by saying that he should be a starter – in only his sophomore season.

Topics: Cleveland Cavaliers, Kyrie Irving

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