Apparently, Golden State had the complete opposite view.
Irving and Love have been the central players in Cleveland’s worst breakdowns. Opponents in the playoffs have scored 1.09 points per chance when they involve those two as the primary pick-and-roll defenders in a play that leads directly to a shot attempt, drawn foul or turnover, per SportVU data provided to ESPN.com. That would have ranked last by a mile among 119 two-man combos that defended at least 250 pick-and-rolls in the regular season, per that SportVU data set.
Zoom out to include any trip that features a pick-and-roll targeting Irving and Love at any time, and the number gets worse: a hideous 1.207 points allowed per possession, stingier than only one of those 119 duos — the Jrue Holiday/Ryan Anderson pairing in New Orleans.
Opponents know this stuff. They are putting Irving and Love into twice as many pick-and-rolls each game as they averaged in the regular-season, a massive jump out of proportion to the slight uptick in minutes the two are playing together. These are the sort of numbers that had members of the Golden State Warriors’ coaching staff quietly fretting when both Love and Irving missed last year’s NBA Finals, forcing the Cavs to play superior defenders in their place.
This is how the Warriors operate. They’re arrogant. They reportedly believed they’d sign Kevin Durant. Owner Joe Lacob told The New York Times: “We’re light-years ahead of probably every other team in structure, in planning, in how we’re going to go about things. We’re going to be a handful for the rest of the N.B.A. to deal with for a long time.”
So, I believe Golden State thought Irving and Love – two stars – getting hurt lowered its odds of winning. That doesn’t make the Warriors right, but there is a logic to this thought process.
If the Cavs would’ve had their top talent – including Irving and Love – on the floor, I don’t think they could’ve played the grind-it-out style that better matched up with Golden State. Giving more prominent roles to Tristan Thompson and Matthew Dellavedova and running all the offense through LeBron James made the game rougher and slower, and the Warriors struggled in that style.
That’s why I don’t accept this thought process: “Cleveland pushed the Warriors to six games without Irving and Love. Imagine what the Cavs would’ve done with those two.” It’s not that simple. The Cavaliers couldn’t have played the same way with Irving and Love, and the freer-paced alternative would’ve played into Golden State’s hands.
I believe the Warriors would’ve won that series regardless of Irving’s and Love’s injuries. Many disagree. We’ll never know.
But I do get a kick out of the idea that Cleveland fans and Golden State coaches were similarly – though for very differently reasons – distraught about Irving’s and Love’s injures.