Programming note: "Warriors NBA Finals Central" airs tonight at 5 p.m., and immediately after Game 1 on CSN Bay Area. Both shows will be streaming live right here.
OAKLAND – The Bulls and Hawks probably saw more than they wanted of Cavaliers backup point guard Matthew Dellavedova in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
But the Warriors witnessed just the right amount to have a thicker scouting report on the Saint Mary’s product because of his extensive playing time in place of injured All-Star Kyrie Irving.
“He’s been good for them, and I think we saw more of what he brings as opposed to a small sample size because of the injury to Kyrie,” Warriors backup point guard Shaun Livingston. “We have a better understanding of his game.”
Dellavedova became a controversial national figure overnight after he was in the middle of plays that resulted in ejections to Chicago’s Taj Gibson and Atlanta’s Al Horford, as well as a playoffs-ending injury to Hawks sharp-shooter Kyle Korver.
Overlooked is what the 24-year-old scrapper from Maryborough, Australia, contributed as part of LeBron James’ supporting cast. After scoring 10 or more points nine times in 67 regular-season games, Dellavedova hit double digits five times in 14 playoff games, including in four of the past five games.
When Irving was sidelined early in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, Dellavedova stepped in to score a game-high 19 points. He averaged approximately 20 minutes per game in the regular season. In the past five games, he was on the floor for an average of 31 ½ minutes.
It mostly remains a mystery how healthy Irving will be on Thursday night when the Cavs and Warriors meet in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. Irving has been clearly limited by a right foot strain and tendinitis in his left knee. Dellavedova said the increased minutes in the playoffs was beneficial for whatever role he will be called on to play.
“I think it helped a lot,” Dellavedova said. “There’s nothing more valuable than experience and actually doing it, so I really feel that those minutes helped me a lot. I feel pretty confident.”
Dellavedova could face the unenviable task of guarding league MVP Stephen Curry, whose shooting range and quickness off the dribble prompted James to say it’s impossible to stop him. Dellavedova agrees with the four-time MVP.
“He is the MVP for a reason,” Dellavedova said of Curry. “So I don't think anyone can really stop him. It's more about trying to slow him down and limiting his opportunities.”
Livingston figures to match up against Dellavedova when the second units are on the floor. The two players have flourished during the postseason in their roles, and Livingston knows more about the undrafted second-year player because of his increased minutes.
“He’s been great spot-up shooting,” Livingston said. “He’s been great on-the-ball defense and making plays. He’s a utility guy, and he’s been really good in that role.”
But most of the talk centering on Dellavedova in the postseason has been on the incidents in which he has been in the middle.
In fact, there’s been more conversation in the media about whether Dellavedova is a dirty player than Gibson or Horford, whose actions directed at Dellavedova resulted in ejections.
Gibson set two hard screens on Dellavedova in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinal and shoved him to the ground and fell on top of him in a 10-second sequence before he kicked his way out of an apparent leg lock while Dellavedova was on his stomach.
Horford appeared to be holding Dellavedova as the 6-foot-4 guard was backing into Horford to box him out on the defensive end in Game 3 of the Eastern Finals. Dellavedova fell over DeMarre Carroll, who had tripped over another Cavaliers player. Hawks players said they believed Dellavedova was going into Horford’s legs. Horford was ejected for delivering a right elbow that landed to Dellavedova’s upper body after both players toppled to the floor.
After the Horford incident, some looked differently at Dellavedova’s diving pursuit of a loose ball in front of a standing Kyle Korver in Game 2. Dellavedova secured possession of the ball and rolled into Korver’s lower leg. Korver sustained a high-ankle sprain that sidelined him for the remainder of the series.
Dellavedova said “the tape is there,” suggesting that an objective person would find no fault in his hard-nosed approach to the game.
“I don't think there's a problem with how I play,” he said.
Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett certainly had no problem with Dellavedova’s style during his four-year college career. Dellavedova’s hustle and resulting collision after securing a loose ball in the 2012 West Coast Conference championship game, which led to a foul on Gonzaga’s Kevin Pangos, was the key play in the Gaels’ overtime victory.
“This guy is not dirty at all,” Bennett said. “The guy plays the game with more integrity than about anybody I know. But is he physical? Absolutely. He has to be physical to help his team win. He’s going to do what he has to do to help his team win.
“But every coach in the county is going to tell you that you have to rotate over and block out. If there’s a ball on the floor, every coach teaches, ‘Dive on the floor for the loose ball.’ He’s doing what he has to do to win. If somebody interprets that as dirty, then I’d see basketball different than they would.”
His Cleveland teammates rushed to his defense and labeled any talk about Dellavedova being dirty as preposterous. Nobody knows better than Irving, who has been on the other side of Dellavedova’s relentless energy plenty of times over the past two seasons.
“That's why me and him are so close and we have that type of relationship,” said Irving, who was born in Australia and lived there for the first two years of his life while his dad played pro ball there. “It's just when he first came, it was almost a fist fight every day in practice. Like, every single day. It wasn't that he was trying to be dirty or intentional or anything like that, it's just the way he is. It's just his nature. It's that Australian blood he has in him. It's just running deep. It's deep rooted.”
Said James, “I love Delly. What he brings to our team (is) just toughness and grit, determination. Just tries to beat all the odds. He's been great for us, and I know he's happy to be back here too, playing college ball here.”