"I was just real s----y with the basketball, that's all," Irving said. "Handle wasn't crisp, and Justin Holiday threw great defensive pressure at the top of the key, and their defense was extending me out almost to half court. For me, just coming to the bench, I just got to do a better job of leading that second unit -- especially when Bron [James] and Kevin [Love] are on the bench.
"It's more of a letdown for me going into that fourth quarter and knowing that we had a decent lead going into that fourth. I just got to be better with that second unit. I take responsibility for what transpired there."
The Cavs were up by three to start the fourth quarter, with Irving taking the floor alongside Cleveland reserves Matthew Dellavedova, Channing Frye, Richard Jefferson and Timofey Mozgov (who came off the bench with Tristan Thompson getting the start against Chicago).
Within the first four minutes of the fourth, the Bulls were up by seven, with Irving contributing two turnovers and two missed shots on the first six possessions of the quarter.
"They tried to blitz and corral or whatever, and he's got to do a better job of handling that," Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said when asked about Chicago's defensive adjustments on Irving.
The fourth-quarter swoon by Cleveland typified the bench disparity all game, with Chicago's second unit outscoring the Cavs' reserves 44-11.
"I just got to do a better job just leading the unit," Irving said. "Just in general, just getting guys in positions and making sure our spacing is great every single time, and we're running plays that are necessarily tailored for that second unit. Got to go back and look at film and just find a package, so when we're out there, no matter who is out there with me -- obviously, Shump [Iman Shumpert] is usually out there with me on that second unit -- but tonight is one of those nights, a learning lesson."
After playing the entire third quarter, James re-entered the game with 7:50 remaining and the Cavs down by seven. The Bulls' lead swelled to 13 before Cleveland mounted a comeback and pulled within two when Dellavedova's potential go-ahead 3 with 2.5 seconds left fell short. After Pau Gasol went 1-for-2 on a subsequent trip to the free throw line, J.R. Smith had a chance to tie it at the buzzer but also missed.
"We played great basketball for 36 minutes," James said. "The fourth quarter was kind of challenging for the lineup that we had in there. At the end of the day, we still had an opportunity."
Like Lue, James was not pleased with the turnovers.
"My saying is always the same: Unforced turnovers are not OK, attack turnovers are," he said. "We had a lot of unforced turnovers that gave them an opportunity to get into the break and not face our half-court D, and we paid for it."
A win could have clinched the No. 1 seed in the East for the Cavs while simultaneously eliminating the Bulls from playoff contention. Instead, Chicago's playoff hopes -- however faint -- are still alive, and Cleveland needs either a win in its last two games or a Toronto loss to secure the top spot.
"I told you guys yesterday, I told you guys this morning at shootaround: The Chicago Bulls team that plays us is not going to be one that's been struggling a little bit off and on, as of late," James said. "They always play well versus us. It's just human nature. When they see me, it's like, 'OK.' They wish I wore every uniform at this point. They definitely step up their game when they see me."