Struggling to get any kind of acceleration that has made him one of the game's elite, Kyrie Irving went to a few of his teammates during Sunday's Game 4 and asked if they wanted him to continue playing through a strained right foot. Irving had been a shell of his healthy self most of the afternoon, connecting on just 1 of 8 field goals and handing out one assist in 21 first-half minutes. He had been relegated to guarding the Bulls' smallest offensive threat on the floor, at times Mike Dunleavy, Tony Snell or Kirk Hinrich. Lingering through the pain, Irving wasn't sure if he was helping or hurting the Cavaliers, who trailed by as many as 11 late in the third quarter.
Forward Tristan Thompson wasn't one of the players Irving consulted, but what his response would have been was also the consensus in the Cleveland locker room.
"I’d tell him, 'Are you crazy? Get your butt out there, boy. You’re one of the best on the court. You gotta be out there. We need you out there,'" he said. "He knows he could never ask me that because I’d look at him like he’s crazy. He gets it done."
Irving did gut out another performance, playing 41 minutes in the Cavaliers' 86-84 victory that tied the series at two games apiece. It was the second straight game in which Irving has dealt with the foot strain he suffered against the Celtics in Round 1 and that was aggravated in the opening minutes of Game 3 on Friday. His final numbers were pedestrian, at best, finishing with 12 points, four rebounds and two assists. But he played, and though he wasn't able to replicate his performances from Games 1 and 2 the boost he gave his team was instrumental in the win.
"I definitely always want him out there if he can go," said Iman Shumpert, who's dealing with a groin injury of his own. "We’ll be hurt after the season. Right now we’ve got to get wins."
It was clear from the onset that Irving was still dealing with the injury, as he missed his first five shots and rarely matched up with Rose on the defensive end. His lone field goal in the first half came on a botched play from LeBron James, who found Irving on the right baseline for a 10-foot jumper. But Irving stayed aggressiveness enough to earn eight trips to the free-throw line in that first half, connecting on all of them.
He didn't attempt a shot in the fourth quarter, allowing both J.R. Smith and James do the heavy lifting on the offensive end, yet still gutted out 11 minutes in the final stanza. His +7 rating was tied for best on the team, and he also added two steals playing as much help defense as he could.
"It’s a little frustrating, but playing with my brothers and winning a big game like this makes my effort for me - it goes right out the window. I’m going to go out there and compete, space out people as much as possible, make plays when the ball’s in my hands, or go screen or get a couple steals or rebounds,"he said. "So whatever’s needed I can do. I’m going to will myself to do it and I’m just glad the guys still want me out there, even if I’m not 100 percent."
And though the Cavaliers regained home court advantage heading back to Cleveland for Game 5, they'll need more from Irving to earn two more wins. James has been inefficient taking on more of a shooting load in the series, with his 10-for-30 performance Sunday putting him at 37.7 percent shooting on 106 attempts for the series.
Irving will continue to play through the injury, with JR Smith admitting after the game "him at 60 percent is better than most point guards in the league at 100 (percent)." It's tough to find a scenario where Irving can't complement James in the scoring/distributing department and the Cavaliers winning the series. It happened Sunday, thanks in large part to Smith's shooting and James' last-second heroics.
Yet for an afternoon, Irving's presence was enough for the Cavs to steal a win in Chicago, where the Bulls had won 12 of their last 14 games.
"The kid is a warrior," James said. "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. And it goes a long way. It’s not just about basketball, what this kid is doing for our team. And he’s giving us everything that he’s got, and that’s all we can ask for."