INDEPENDENCE, Ohio – Tough as the gap between the NBA’s conference championships and the Finals might be for fans and TV viewers, the first three of these eight days have been a tonic and a balm to Kyrie Irving‘s achy left knee.
That gives the Cleveland Cavaliers point guard a legitimate shot at being healthy when his team faces the Golden State Warriors in Game 1 next Thursday in Oakland.
“I’m participating in everything,” Irving said after the Cavaliers’ workout Friday. “We just had a light practice today. The next few days, we’ll definitely ramp it up, I assume. I’m in everything. So I’m ready to go.”
That’s a departure from the previous three rounds. Irving sprained his right foot early in the first round against Boston, which, as he continued to play on it, led to a compensating injury in his left knee. That tendinitis limited him against Chicago and caused him to skip Games 2 and 3 against Atlanta in the East finals.
The three-time All Star, 23, did at least travel with the Cavs to Atlanta to start the series, then took a side trip to Florida with Cleveland team physician Dr. Richard Parker to consult with noted sports orthopedist Dr. James Andrews. They came back with a tweaked treatment plan, which Irving credited for helping him play in the Game 4 clincher Tuesday. He scored 16 points in 22 minutes in the 30-point blowout.
Irving’s production hasn’t dropped off entirely, even though he has lacked his signature turbocharged quickness, along with the trust in his body. In 12 games, he has averaged 18.7 points, 3.3 rebounds and 3.7 assists, and his player-efficiency rating of 20.3 is within his PER range of 20.1 to 21.5 through his first four NBA seasons.
But going through the “will he or won’t he?” uncertainty with the knee (the foot isn’t much of an issue anymore) took a mental toll on Irving. So did the layers of treatment, even as he was trying to properly prepare in case he did play.
“You know, being hurt sucks. Especially in a time like that,” Irving said. “So it was just a learning experience, to say the least. But it was a test of my will. I was very resilient in what I was doing. Hopefully going forward I don’t have any relapse.”
With Kevin Love (shoulder surgery) already out since the first round, the Cavaliers need Irving to bring as much of his “A” game as possible to prevent Golden State from loading up defensively on LeBron James. There would be a benefit for the whole Cleveland team if it didn’t have to sweat Irving’s status day to day through the Finals.
“More so for him, to be able to get out there and be comfortable,” Cavs coach David Blatt said. “Not have to worry. ‘Am I going to hurt today? Is it gonna get worse if I play? Is it going to bother me from doing the things I normally do at both ends of the court?’ So I’m hoping, more than anything else, for him, that his feeling is such that he can get out there and play without worry. Without concern. Then he’ll be fine.”
It would mean the difference between playing self-consciously and even cautiously versus just playing. The latter can lead to dynamite results, with Irving so key to slowing Golden State’s momentum and breaking down its defense.
“Basketball for me is all based off instincts,” Irving said. “Going out there when you’re playing hurt, it’s a mental struggle and a mental game that you’re playing with yourself. You’re trying to convince yourself, like, ‘I can one-dribble pull-up or come off this screen…’ Your mind is thinking one thing and your body just won’t allow you to do it.
“Knowing when they’re in line, it’s the utmost confidence. For me it’s the biggest thing. Because my game is predicated on stopping and going, and being able to finish at the rim and make plays. … Now these practice days are vital for me in order to get my rhythm back.
“I’m in a good spot right now.”