Kyrie and Cavs learning what greatness requires

CLEVELAND -- It was a late night at a late stage of the longest season of Kyrie Irving's young career, and the restless point guard was watching television.

As he surfed his Apple TV he spotted the title of a movie that Kobe Bryant -- one of his two basketball idols growing up, along with his dad -- had mentioned in an interview as appealing to him: "Whiplash."

It's the story of a music academy instructor, played by J.K. Simmons, pushing the young drummer in the academy's jazz band, played by Miles Teller, to his breaking point, believing that only by pushing one to the extreme can extraordinary results be produced out of that individual.

The sun would be up by the time Irving finished the film that night, but something happened to him when he viewed it. You could say a light was shed on his soul.

"It's just about the drive to be great," Irving told ESPN.com after the Cleveland Cavaliers' stirring 106-101 win over Chicago in Game 5 on Tuesday when asked about "Whiplash." It spoke to him so much that he's taken to writing the title of the film on his shoes before games during the playoffs. "It's awesome."

His answer echoed the personal motto of his teammate, LeBron James, who punctuates nearly every Instagram photo he posts with the hashtag "#striveforgreatness."

James has achieved that level before, pushing himself for 12 seasons to stay on top of his sport, winning two championships, making it to five Finals and being named MVP four times in the process. Irving is replicating the young prodigy role that James occupied so long ago by following up his top overall draft-pick entry into the league with the rookie of the year award and multiple All-Star appearances by the time he was barely old enough to rent a car.

While James always had size and athleticism on his side, Irving -- average-sized and mostly below-the-rim bound -- had to work on his game for countless hours, building from the ground up. Where Teller's character's hands would bleed from his drumming, Irving would do the Mikan drill -- standing below the basket and tossing up layups with both hands from every angle -- until he was dizzy from staring up at the gym lights above him.

"I wasn't like him growing up so I wasn't taking off or anything like that," Irving said at the postgame podium, gesturing to James beside him. "So my game is predicated on ..."

James interrupted: "I did the Mikan drill."

Said Irving: "I didn't say you didn't do it. You were taking off when you were like 8. You know my game was predicated on angles and backboard and practice constantly and constantly and constantly honing my craft."

"This has been the biggest mental challenge of my career thus far. It's just because I want it more and I want to be that guy for my teammates, as well as LeBron." Kyrie Irving

All the time, all the effort Irving put into the game up to this point was met by the cruelest of timing when a strained right foot and subsequent tendinitis in his left knee sapped him of his mobility at the precise moment he reached the pinnacle of his career thus far: Games 3 and 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

But he kept right on drumming.

"This has been the biggest mental challenge of my career thus far. It's just because I want it more and I want to be that guy for my teammates, as well as LeBron," Irving said after a breakthrough Game 5, scoring 25 points (more than the 23 he scored combined in Games 3 and 4) on 9-for-16 shooting to go with five assists.

"Games 3 and 4, it was probably the biggest challenge for me coming to grips with it just because I wanted to do so much more. It's just about learning from different experiences, especially Games 3 and 4, watching a lot of film, getting a lot of treatment and putting myself in that mental space to be ready to play. Obviously, I'm really confident still in myself, but I just want to go out there and play for my brothers. That's all that matters at this point."

The Cavs have been in the pressure cooker of the playoffs for nearly a month now. They've dealt with the devastating season-ending shoulder surgery for Kevin Love, the two-game suspension for J.R. Smith, the seesaw coaching performances by David Blatt and the sudden inundation of injuries to Irving and others and yet, they're still standing. One win away from the Eastern Conference finals, five wins away from the Finals, nine wins away from the first professional sports championship in Cleveland in 51 years.

All those demanding circumstances didn't crush them. It readied them.

"When you play in a series, and in particular in a series like this, you learn a lot about yourself," Blatt said. "You learn a lot about your team, you learn a lot about what's important to win games because they're not going to come easy. I just think that guys recognize what they have to do and what they have to do together in order to be a very good basketball team. For me, that's the thing. That's something you can only do as a trial by fire. This is a hot series. Guys are learning and they're doing a great job."

The greatest job done on Tuesday was by James, who can't play much better, scoring 38 points on 14-for-24 shooting to go with 12 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 steals, 3 blocks and zero turnovers, making it his first game without coughing one up all season.

"Um, ‘Yayyyy,' first off. No turnovers is [satisfying]," James said. "... I never pat myself on the back ever, but I will now."

It was a brief moment of satisfaction, however. He slipped into the Simmons' instructor role to Irving's Teller shortly thereafter.

"I think like I always continue to say, every game is an experience for us. And I think we grew some tonight, but I also think we didn't grow as much," James said.

After the biggest win of the year, James rattled off everything that went wrong: the 30 points the Cavs allowed in the fourth quarter, the 17-point lead with 9:27 left in the fourth quarter that dwindled all the way down to two with 1:18 remaining, the backdoor cuts, the open 3s, the and-1 opportunities.

In other words, to paraphrase the line of dialogue that "Whiplash" made famous: "Not my tempo."

"When we're locked in defensively, when everyone is in tune and we know this is how we're going to be, then we're great," James said.

James knows what greatness takes. Irving is realizing it too. To get there as a group, the Cavs still have work to do.