LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard

A loss to the San Antonio Spurs isn’t the end of the world for the Cleveland Cavaliers, but it once again highlighted an important point about LeBron James and his team’s attempt to win an NBA championship: Without Kyrie Irving playing well, it’s going to be difficult for them overcoming the best teams in the NBA.

And in the best teams, we’re talking about the Golden State Warriors and Spurs. Two teams that haven’t lost at home this season. For the Spurs, the win meant 32 straight wins on their home court, going 23-0 this season, en route to a 99-95 victory, as once again Kawhi Leonard slowed down James in the second half, while the rest of the Cavaliers couldn’t pick up the slack.

That’s the headline most people are taking from this game: Leonard, probably the best defensive player in the NBA, holding James to 8 points in the second half (22 overall) and just like in the 2014 NBA finals, keeping him far away from the basket. James had to take shots from 16.2 feet on average with Leonard on him in the second half, while shooting from 9.6 feet on average in the first half. His usage ratio dropped from 62% against other defenders to 10% against Leonard, as the Spurs, just like the Warriors, overcame a strong start from the Cavaliers to turn things around in the second half and especially the fourth quarter and walk away with the win.

Irving, in my opinion, is the key. He finished with 16 points but only 6-of-17 from the field, and the Cavaliers were losing by 7 points during his minutes, compared to having a +9 with James during his 37 minutes. Leonard can’t completely stop James, but he makes it very difficult for him, more than anyone else in the league, while not taking himself out offensively, scoring 20 points. But Tony Parker outplaying Irving is what the Cavs can’t allow to happen.

Parker scored 24 points, and the Spurs time after time were able to take Irving into bad decisions and bad shots. Irving is the key to the Cavaliers having a flowing, dangerous offense, and when he’s trying to do too much and not hitting his shots, it puts too much pressure on James to try and score on his own. The answer didn’t come from the bench, and we’ve learned it won’t come from Kevin Love, who finished with 10 points and 12 rebounds.

The entire lineup for the Cavaliers scored in double figures, including 18 for Tristan Thompson and 17 for J.R. Smith. But that extra something the Cavaliers needed to break down the best defense in the league wasn’t’ there. Matthew Dellavedova shot just 2-of-8 from the field, scoring 5 points in 12-point effort from the Cavaliers bench.

As we mentioned, this isn’t the end of the world, and just like from the Warriors game, there’s plenty of good things to take. However, once again losing a lead late in the game means there might be some game management problem as opposed to excellent preparation. The key? Finding a way to respond to Irving having a bad game against an excellent defense. Figure that out, and James struggling with the player guarding him wont’ make that much of a difference.

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