CHICAGO -- The wear and tear of a season that started with an international basketball competition overseas in September and has now dragged on eight grueling months to the second round of the playoffs had started to catch up with Kyrie Irving.
Soreness in his right hip in April turned into soreness in his right foot in May, and the more he fought to play through it, the more the pain spread, starting to take its hold on his left leg as well.
“It’s just that when you overcompensate for one side of your body that’s hurt, it starts to sway either side,” Irving explained Sunday evening, both feet plunged into a bucket of ice water.
After scoring just 11 points, picking up zero assists and missing 10 of the 13 shots he attempted in the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Game 3 loss to the Chicago Bulls to fall down 2-1 in the Eastern Conference semifinals, Irving wondered if he even deserved to be on the court for Game 4.
“I asked all of them if they still want me out there,” Irving said, seeking approval from his teammates prior to the Cavs’ stirring 86-84 win to knot the series 2-2.
The answer was a resounding yes.
“The kid is a warrior,” LeBron James said after sealing the win with a buzzer-beating jump shot. It was a shot that never would have been possible without Irving playing 41 minutes in the back-and-forth affair that featured nine ties and six lead changes. “What he’s going through right now, no one can relate. He’s played 40 minutes on one foot the last two games. Just his presence on the floor, no matter if he’s playing on one foot or not, you have to account for him because of his ability to make shots. His ability to command things out on the floor. It goes a long way.
“It’s not just about basketball what this kid is doing for our team right now. He’s giving it everything that he’s got, and that’s all that we can ask for.”
Tristan Thompson came into the league as a rookie with Irving four years ago. Irving knew better than to go to the big man he has shared his entire career with for Thompson’s opinion of whether he should play.
“He knows he can’t ask me that,” Thompson said. “Because I’d tell him, ‘You crazy? Get your butt out there, boy. You’re one of the best on the court. You got to be out there. We need you out there.’ So, he knows he can never ask me that question, I’d look at him like he’s crazy.”
After the way Irving has gutted through the last two games in Chicago, his team looks at him as an inspiration.
“That kid, he’s just playing with so much heart and so much courage,” Cavs coach David Blatt said. “Couldn’t be prouder of him, just the way he’s fighting through and sacrificing and doing everything he can to help the team win even though he’s not at full strength.
Irving’s body looked worse in Game 4 than it did in Game 3, but his game looked better. He had the game high in free throws, making all eight of his attempts (which softened his 2-for-10 shooting line from the field). He also added four rebounds, two assists and two steals.
“The midrange pull-up just wasn’t falling for me today, so, going to the basket, creating contact and trying to feed our bigs off my penetration -- that’s what I tried to do,” Irving said.
The two-time All-Star, known for his penchant for pulling off seemingly impossible finishes around the rim, said it’s his acceleration that has been sapped the most.
“Obviously I’m not even close to playing my game right now, so I’m just doing what I can out there,” Irving said.
During Game 4, he wore his body’s discomfort on his face, wincing in idle moments when a teammate was shooting a free throw or shifting his weight back and forth to try to alleviate whatever pain he could as he was awaiting a pass on the wing.
“For me, it’s just about the mental toughness and kind of just willing myself and just counting down the minutes and stops that we need,” Irving said. His teammates have adopted the same mind-over-matter mantra.
“It’s about as good as it’s going to get,” said Iman Shumpert, playing through a strained left groin of his own. “I’ll be hurt after the season.”
Added Thompson: “We’re warriors. It’s the playoffs. You got to give it all you got. No matter if it’s a bump or bruise, if you can walk, you can run. If you can run, you can play. That’s how we approach it.”
Now they approach Tuesday’s Game 5 with a chance to re-establish home-court advantage, and Irving is determined to contribute no matter what state of disrepair his body is in.
“My optimistic attitude just comes from a pride standpoint, just going out there and competing with my brothers and doing whatever it takes. So, damn near if I have to hop out there with one leg [I will do it],” Irving said. “It’s just sometimes I am my own demise. I could easily sit out and easily rest, but I’d rather will it out and give it a chance than sitting back and watching my brothers compete without me.”
His brothers would have it no other way.