CLEVELAND — There’s no doubt Kyrie Irving is a gamer, playing through considerable pain and injury as he labors up and down the floor with injuries to both legs, robbing many of the tête-à-tête with Derrick Rose that was expected coming into the series.
But with a crucial Game 5 looming, the Bulls recognize that although they have respect for his ailments, it won’t stop them from exploiting it—nor should it. Irving was diagnosed with tendinitis in his left knee to go with his right foot strain he apparently suffered in Game 2 of the first-round series with Boston.
"I think the guy is really tough for going out there and competing while he’s hurt, and I’ve got a lot of respect for him, he’s a very good player,” said Bulls swingman Jimmy Butler. “But this is playoff basketball and any type of edge you can get, utilize it."
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Irving is perhaps the league’s best scoring point guard this side of Stephen Curry, and even that is up for reasonable debate. In this series, however, Irving is shooting 36 percent and dishing out just 2.8 assists. He’s scoring 18.5 points but the majority of that is coming from the foul line, as he has nine more free-throw makes than shots made.
It’s certainly hampered the Cavaliers’ offense, allowing the Bulls to devote more attention to LeBron James, who’s in the midst of one of his worst shooting series in his storied career.
“You gotta attack everybody, not just Kyrie,” Butler said. “But we will attack him, no matter who he’s guarding. We’ll attack whoever we feel like has the matchup to attack. I think coach does a great job of putting us into position where you know where guys are going to be on the floor, where they’re going to get their shot at a certain time.”
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Coming into the series, it was expected Irving would attack Rose, as the Bulls guard is still working off the kinks from knee surgery in late February. Remarkably, Rose is the stronger lead guard, and getting stronger as the series progresses—presumably seeing blood in the water.
“I wouldn’t say make it hurt but you notice it,” Rose said after Game 4. “Whoever he’s guarding, just gotta make sure everybody’s moving. Their defense is good, their helpside is good.”
Rose’s usage (percentage of plays used a player while on the floor) is second to only James in the players participating in the second round, meaning he’s ahead of Curry, James Harden and Blake Griffin.
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His effect goes beyond the already impressive stat line of 25 points, 6.5 assists and 5.3 rebounds in nearly 39 minutes a game. Irving playing at half strength or less puts even more pressure on the Bulls guards to dominate the matchup, especially if they have to go without Pau Gasol, who’s a gametime decision with his left hamstring strain.
“I think we’ve been doing a good job with holding our own and playing the way we normally play,” Rose said. “Of course we play inside a little bit more. But when you’re missing Pau and Taj (Gibson) is just getting in a groove---we gotta find ways to get Taj the ball a little more as a team---but as far as guard play, I think we’ve been playing all right.
“We just gotta knock down some more open shots. But I think we’re taking the right shots at the right time.”