The Cavaliers understood their margin for error was minimal. Playing without Kevin Love against a playoff-tested Bulls team would require, among other factors, near-perfect execution from LeBron James and, in his playoff debut, Kyrie Irving. Though a pair of trades in January that sent them three key role players had kick-started the Eastern Conference's hottest team, a third leading scorer on the bench meant more productivity needed from their top two players.
The latter didn’t occur Friday night in Game 3, with Irving struggling through an aggravated foot injury that now puts his health status for the rest of the series in question as the Cavaliers face a must-win on Sunday, trailing the Bulls 2-1.
Irving appeared to roll his ankle in the first quarter, noticeably limping during that opening 12 minutes in which he attempted just one shot and failed to show off his lightning-quick aggressiveness that had dissected the Bulls’ defense through the first two games of the series.
And while that limp faded away over the course of the game, Irving’s passive play did not. The point guard who had tallied 51 points on 32 shots in Games 1 and 2 rarely had the ball in his hands in the second half, at one point in the third quarter stood in the right corner on back-to-back possessions without getting a touch.
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After the game Cavaliers head coach David Blatt revealed that Irving had aggravated the foot injury and seemed pleasantly surprised that his All-Star point guard was able to push through the injury, logging 38 minutes despite shooting 3-for-13 and not handing out a single assist in the loss.
Irving then delved further, saying he had suffered the injury in Game 2 of the Cavs’ first-round series against the Celtics, meaning the foot has been bothering him for more than two weeks. Though Irving did push through in the second half, logging 22 of a possible 24 minutes, he admitted that he “(used) myself as a decoy at times” and couldn’t get the burst he wanted going toward the basket or lift on his shot after aggravating the foot in the first quarter. He also wasn't effective defensively, with Blatt opting against using him on Rose, who scored 24 second-half points.
Irving said he doesn’t plan to miss any time with the lingering injury, though if a similar occurrence happens one has to wonder how effective he can be against a Bulls backcourt that hit its stride in the second half and will take plenty of momentum into Sunday’s monumental Game 4.
But Irving also understands the situation in front of him. Without Love, and without a bench to match the Bulls’ second unit in both minutes and productivity, Irving is no longer just an asset for the Cavaliers. He’s a necessity.
Matthew Dellavedova logged 16 crucial minutes, scoring 10 points. The Cavs also got back the services of J.R. Smith, who scored 14 points – including a game-tying 3-pointer with 11 seconds left – in his return from a two-game suspension.
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Neither are Irving. And neither would be able to maintain the level of scoring and overall success that a healthy Irving brings to the table, despite the Cavaliers being one miracle shot from Rose away from sending Game 3 to overtime.
“I don’t make any excuses for myself. For me to go out there, obviously I was just trying to play it through it as best I can and I’m still going to continue to do that,” Irving said after the game. “I’m not going to hang my head on having a bad foot or anything like that. I’ve got to have that attitude and mind set to go out there and compete for my brothers.”
Added Blatt: "Kyrie has been playing hurt. He has been giving us all he has and will continue to do that."
LeBron James, who took on the tall task of trying to beat the Bulls on the road without his partner-in-crime at full health, struggled with the added responsibility. His jump shot continued to fail him, as he went just 8-for-25 from the field, and he committed seven of the Cavaliers' 11 turnovers, which the Bulls turned into 14 points. His effect on the game didn't feel like 27 points and 14 assists, largely because Irving wasn't there to complement him.
But James, unlike Irving, has been here before. Friday was James' 165th career playoff game, and he knows the Cavaliers and Irving won't get any free passes because of the latter's injury. The Bulls smell blood in the water, and with less than 48 hours to prepare for a must-win game the four-time MVP is confident Irving will do what he has to do to get the series back on track.
“No one’s going to feel sorry for us. No one feels sorry for Kyrie because he’s hurt. And we’re not going to make any excuses," James said. "If he’s on the court he has to make plays. And I have to help him, he has to help me, and we have to help our team.
"The injuries, obviously I know from a competitive standpoint it’s killing him inside because I know what type of competitor he is and I know what type of teammate he is, and he wants to do everything great for his teammates. But the situation is what it is. He’s a great competitor. He gave us 40 minutes on one foot. As frustrating as it is for him, he’ll do it again.