OAKLAND, Calif. — Kyrie Irving was nearly everything the Cleveland Cavaliers needed him to be for the first 51 minutes of Thursday's NBA Finals opener against the Golden State Warriors.
After struggling through several rounds of the postseason and missing two games of the Eastern Conference finals with left knee tendinitis and a sprained right foot, Irving looked like his All-Star self, scoring 23 points on 10-of-22 shooting, adding seven rebounds and six assists, and blocking a potential game-winning Stephen Curry layup from behind on the Warriors' last possession of regulation.
Even in a loss, this performance would have served as a positive indication of the Cavs' chances in this series. A team that relied on LeBron James to unprecedented degrees in the previous two rounds saw the impactful return of their second superstar, a shot creator and electric scorer finally healthy enough to make a difference.
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That all changed shortly before the 2:00 mark of overtime when Irving slipped while attempting to drive on Warriors guard Klay Thompson. Irving limped to his feet as Harrison Barnes hit a back-breaking three-pointer at the other end to give Golden State a 105-98 lead. Irving attempted to walk back out on the court after a Cleveland timeout and made it a few steps with apparent, but not overwhelming, discomfort. With one more step, however, things went very wrong, and Irving was forced into the locker room as the Cavs scored just two points in the extra period on their way to a 108-100 loss.
Golden State was in control even before Irving's injury, but his absence essentially sealed it.
As expected, the Cavaliers did not have an immediate update on Irving's status for Game 2 and the rest of the Finals.
“He’s with the doctors right now being evaluated,” head coach David Blatt said. “I can’t give you any specifics yet. We just don’t know.”
The circumstantial evidence is not positive. Irving briefly made himself available to media at his locker after the game and confirmed that he had aggravated his left knee, but he also admitted worry over his status for the rest of the series:
The end of that clip is arguably more relevant than anything Irving says. After finishing up with reporters, he put his head in his hand.
Irving later left the locker room on crutches, albeit with a decidedly happier look on his face:
— Rachel Nichols (@Rachel__Nichols) June 5, 2015
The Cavs' leader took his teammate's bad fortune to heart.
"It was very tough to see," LeBron said. "I just see how hard he worked these last eight days just to get himself to play at this level tonight. Seeing him walk out of the locker room on crutches just now, that's a tough blow for our team."
That's not to say that an update on Irving's health is a mere formality. Given the stakes of this series and two days off before Sunday's Game 2, he could suit up again. Yahoo Sports' own Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted the relevant news as of Thursday night — there is as yet no word on how much the three-time All-Star can contribute over the rest of the series, if at all:
Kyrie Irving emerges on crutches from locker room, source tells Yahoo "no answers tonight" on knee.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) June 5, 2015
Irving's status looks decidedly more important now than it did before Game 1. While there were never any serious indications that he would be unavailable to play in the Finals, his condition was a near-constant topic of conversation and a major factor in determining if Cleveland could match Golden State's consistently high level of play. From the opening tip on, Irving attacked the rim and unleashed the ballhandling ability that has been his trademark over his career. While not fully healthy, this version of Irving was good enough to force the Warriors to consider adjustments and plan for a creator not named LeBron.
"He's an All-NBA type of talent," Thompson said. "He's tough to guard because he can go both ways. He can finish with his right, his left, shoot the three, shoot the mid-range, and just plays at his own pace."
Thompson didn't entertain the idea that Irving would not play going forward.
"So he's going to be a challenge for us," he said. "And I look forward to embracing the challenge of guarding him, and I think everyone does.
Somewhat surprisingly, the Cavs guard's biggest play of the night came on the defensive end. With 26 seconds remaining in regulation and the score tied at 98-98, Irving erased what looked like an open Curry layup with a block from behind:
If the Cavs scored on the next possession or won in OT, this block would have been one of the two or three biggest plays of the game (and it arguably was anyway). Although he is not known as an elite defender, Irving showed why he is so important to the Cavs and a titanic figure in this series. There are few players in the NBA who have his burst — he can get to spots faster and more readily than the majority of opposing players, including Thompson, Curry, and any other Warrior who has or will defend him. He can still contribute when hobbled (especially as a shooter), but teams typically need fully equipped superstars to win a title.
"Well, I mean, it's the next man up," LeBron said. "If Kyrie can't go, [Matthew Dellavedova]'s number is going to be called and everyone else has to pick each other up."
The looming question is how much the other Cavaliers have to give. The Warriors' reserves outscored the Cavs' bench 35-9 as J.R. Smith (3-of-13 FG) accounted for all the points and all but one field-goal attempt. For that matter, Cleveland needed every one of LeBron's 44 points (on 38 attempts) as only he, Irving, and Timofey Mozgov scored after halftime.
Golden State's defensive strategy of allowing James shots paid off because Cleveland's secondary players had a difficult time contributing at the offensive end without open spot-up looks from deep.
We have seen enough players return days after seemingly horrible injuries to know that Irving is not a sure thing to show up in plainclothes for Game 2. Nevertheless, his status looks set to define the run-up to Sunday and the Cavaliers' ability to remain competitive against the favored Warriors.
Game 1 was a terrific contest that carried the promise of an epic Finals. It would be a shame if that projection shifted due to an unfortunate injury.
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