INDEPENDENCE, Ohio -- Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving said he will be in the lineup at the start of the Eastern Conference finals against the Atlanta Hawks after being able to practice with his left knee tendinitis and right foot strain on Monday.
"I'm going to go," Irving said of Wednesday's Game 1 in Atlanta.
It's been four days since Irving aggravated his left leg in the Cavs' closeout win over Chicago, limiting him to just 12 minutes overall, including keeping him sidelined for the entire second half. The All-Star point guard consulted with team doctors Friday and sat out Cleveland's practice on Saturday to rest, but reported marked improvement since the Bulls series.
"I would say just my spirits and mental confidence, just being able to actually feel both my feet underneath me, especially when I'm shooting, it feels amazing," Irving said. "You know, just a confidence of getting extra work in and just preparing with my teammates. I think that's the biggest thing I get out of it. I don't want to be on the sideline at all, especially preparing for a big stage like this. I want to be as close to 100 percent before Wednesday as I can be, so just doing the necessary things in order to do that."
Cavs coach David Blatt said he was "encouraged" by Irving's improvement after he held him out in Cleveland's 94-73 Game 6 win once Irving stepped awkwardly on Tristan Thompson's foot in the second quarter and had to be helped to the locker room.
"It's just good to see that he's making some progress," Blatt said. "He's not there 100 percent yet, but he's making progress and that's a very good sign. I'm hopeful."
There was a light mood after Cavs practice and Irving, who is often subdued when he speaks to the media, was visibly excited about his playing status being cleared heading into the next round.
"This is the biggest stage that you want to be part of," Irving said. "Obviously people strive in the regular season to get to the playoffs and now I see absolutely why. There's nothing like the playoffs. Nothing at all. Whatever seeding you are, it's a big-time game. Everyone is watching and you want to be a part of it."
Said LeBron James of Irving's demeanor: "The good thing is he's positive, he's feeling better, and that's positive for our team."
With Irving's health no longer an uncertainty, the Cavs can game plan for the Atlanta series having his services to go up against the Hawks' point guard tandem of Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroder. Like Irving, Teague was an All-Star this season and is averaging 15.3 points, 7.4 assists and 1.6 steals per game in the playoffs. Schroder, in his second year, finished ninth in voting for the league's Most Improved Player award this season and is averaging 10.1 points and 4.3 assists in the postseason.
"Both can break you down on the dribble. Both can push the ball. Both can get to the rim and create for not only themselves, but for others," Blatt said. "They are a handful. Two excellent guards who can play together. That presents another whole set of problems."
The Cavs' defense presents its own problems for opponents, of course. Cleveland ranks first among the remaining teams in the playoffs in both points per game allowed (92.6) and opponent's field goal percentage (40.8).
"In order for us to win we have to defend," James said. "No matter how we shoot the ball offensively, we have to be able trust that one another is going to be there to protect each other, trust that each individual takes the individual matchup, who they're matched up against, so, to know that we have that type of balance defensively, is key to our success. ... If you don't defend, you don't win."