Emotions run high after Irving's knee setback

OAKLAND, Calif. -- It didn't quite compare to the drama that took place on the court, but the scene in the Cleveland Cavaliers' locker room late Thursday night said everything about the complexity of the situation with Kyrie Irving and his ailing left knee.

Irving himself was simply crestfallen. He sat at his locker for a while with a black towel draped over his head and an ice bag on his left knee. His eyes weren't visible, but if he shed a tear in that attempt at a private moment, it might not have been his first of the night.

There were glassy eyes all around the room and stunned silence. The Cavs are down only 1-0 to the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals after the 108-100 overtime loss, but it felt like more after Irving limped off with two minutes to play. They'll certainly rally emotionally before Game 2 -- teams in this situation always do. But in this moment, the heaviness in the room felt like it was a bigger deficit.

As Irving spoke, his voice was shaky. He said when his knee seized up on him, at least the third time it's happened this postseason, it felt different than previous times.

"You can hear in the tone of my voice that I'm a little worried," Irving said. "I just want to make sure everything is OK, and I'm going to take the necessary steps to see what's going on."

Irving asked a team official to have his longtime agent, Jeff Wechsler, come into the locker room. Minutes later Wechsler arrived looking like he'd just seen a ghost and made his way through the crowd to get into the training room.

Dr. Richard Parker, who is one of the finest orthopedic surgeons in the country, had examined Irving. The early diagnosis was no ACL or MCL tear, the two giant fears when a player drops with a noncontact injury. As for everything else, well, everyone will wait for the MRI.

Parker, Irving and Wechsler all were on a private jet just two weeks ago, going from Atlanta to Pensacola, Florida, to see Dr. James Andrews the last time Irving came up lame during a playoff game and was worried about what was going on with his knee. That had spooked Irving, and that was a visit meant to gather information and try to put him at ease.

"It was a little bit different than what I had been experiencing," Irving said. "[Before,] there was a quick pinch, but I could still feel what was going on in my knee. This time, I kind of knew it was a little bit different [from] the other times."

Wechsler tried to comfort Irving, who limped badly into the shower. Later there would be some frustrated words, as there was discussion about whether Irving would need crutches. He clearly did but perhaps didn't want to hear it, and Wechsler knew to give him space.

It was one of those bizarre occupational moments for an agent. Wechsler also represents the Warriors' Harrison Barnes, and down the hall Barnes was enjoying victory after a good game with 11 points and six rebounds. Within seconds of Irving's crumbling to the floor with two minutes left in overtime, Barnes made probably one of the biggest shots of his career when he nailed a 3-pointer that essentially iced the game for the Warriors. Up for a contract extension this summer, that was a big moment for Barnes on a big night, but Wechsler immediately had to tend to Irving.

Later, Irving's father Drederick arrived, darting into the emptying room and searching for his son like any concerned parent would. Only minutes earlier he saw Irving need to hold on to trainer Steve Spiro just to get off the court. To leave the floor during a Finals game, his first Finals game, a game in which he'd been playing brilliantly, it was beyond worrisome.

Drederick, Wechsler and several of Irving's friends gathered outside the Cavs locker room and began talking with emotion about the situation. Wechsler pulled Cavs general manager David Griffin aside to discuss it.

There's been some tension between these two sides for weeks now. Irving's father and Wechsler, sources said, have been preaching caution with Irving and this knee issue. Naturally, they are focused on his long-term health and have concern that playing on a weakened knee -- what the Cavs have said publicly was a bad case of tendinitis -- could put him at risk of suffering a greater injury. Going to see Andrews was part of the entire group's efforts to get a full handle on what Irving was facing and get independent advice on the situation.

Of course on the other side, the Cavs want Irving to play as long as he's not seriously hurt. As Irving was limping through the start of the conference finals against the Hawks, it was easy to identify some mild friction. As Irving was preparing to get a second opinion, there was a sense he was being challenged to play through it.

"It's a combination of pain management and what the physical symptoms are," Cavs coach David Blatt said at the time. "It's just a matter of is he healthy enough to play? Does he feel healthy enough to play? That's all."

LeBron James talked of the responsibility of playing through some pain when you're a star player.

"Everyone's pain tolerance is different, but my responsibility is much higher than a lot of guys," James said. "Not only on this team, but a lot of guys in professional sports, and I take it very seriously."

Blatt and James seemed to be trying to offer perspective and nuance, but perhaps it didn't come off that way. It came off as a suggestion that it was up to Irving and whether he could tolerate playing with the pain. A manhood test.

This might not have been well received. When Irving was declared out for Game 2 of the conference finals the next day, Blatt took a completely different stance. Instead of saying it was a matter of Irving's pain management, this time he said it was the Cavs' doctors who had made the call to shut Irving down. The Cavs seemed to take strides to make it clear it wasn't up to him.

There is no easy or clearly right answer here. Irving is just 23 and he's got a long career ahead of him. The Cavs have $80 million committed to him over the next five years. It is in everyone's interest to play the long game and be cautious.

Knees are not to be messed with -- they are the No. 1 cause of ruined careers -- and Irving is dealing with some pretty significant issues, that much is clear.

To many, this wouldn't even be a discussion, Irving would've remained shut down. And the idea of playing him 44 minutes on the bad knee, as Blatt did in Game 1, was an unacceptable amount of strain even if he wasn't playing so very well and looking so much healthier.

But this is also the Finals. There are no guarantees that Irving, James and the rest of the Cavs will ever have this opportunity again. It doesn't feel that way; it's a reasonably young core and their future is bright. Of course, there are so many examples of such assumptions going off course. What James articulated about stars having a higher expectation is how many people feel. This could be a once in-a-lifetime chance, and perhaps that should be computed into the pain management.

Irving, who would prefer not to discuss his injuries as in-depth as he's been forced into over the past month, has no doubt spent a lot of time weighing all these factors. Only he truly knows how his knee feels. Only he knows the rigors of the rehab he's gone through again and again just so he can keep trying to get out there and give the team whatever he has.

Of the past six games the Cavs have played, he's been unable to finish three because of re-aggravating the knee tendinitis, and two other games he didn't play at all. This is a fight he's waging, and he cannot seem to turn the corner. In addition to the pain, he's got conflicting motivations tugging at him, and both can make meaningful cases.

It's a rotten position to be in, just pure bad luck and horrid timing. And above all that, it hurts.

All of this was playing out in a chilly corner of Oracle Arena as the voices of happy Warriors fans echoed through the old concrete from above as they left in celebration of another win.

Finally, Irving miserably headed off to the bus with another trip to another hospital planned for the morning as he awaited the next round of decisions on his fate.

His teammates were waiting for him as his family and friends went with him out of the arena. He was in need of their support more than ever.