CLEVELAND –- There was never a doubt Kyrie Irving would play in Tuesday night's Game 5 against the Bulls. Even playing with a strained right foot and left knee tendinitis that has caused him both evident pain and limited burst, Irving was confident he could find a way to contribute in a series that necessitated his improved play.
His response was was a 25-point, five-assist performance while gutting out 39 more minutes to help the Cavaliers earn a 106-101 victory and a commanding 3-2 series lead.
And it's been just that - learning his limitations while logging crucial minutes for a Cavaliers team already without Kevin Love and facing a lethal East backcourt - that has been most difficult for Irving to overcome. One of the league's best attackers and 3-point shooters has been forced to dial back his offensive aggressiveness, admitting after Games 3 and 4 that at times he was no more than a decoy. A player who has averaged 1.5 steals per game in his career and thrives on competition has been taken off the assignment of guarding Derrick Rose. But that scaling back on both ends of the floor also have made Irving realize that his contributions are still integral for a Cavs team chasing a championship.
"This has been the biggest mental challenge of my career thus far, just because I want to do more and I want to be that guy for my teammates as well as for (LeBron James)," Irving told reporters after the game. "When you can’t do that, when you’re limited to certain things, you have to come to grips with it."
What he was able to do Tuesday, however, played a significant role in the Cavs win. Irving said he woke up Tuesday morning feeling better than he had since aggravating the foot injury in Game 3. In that game and Game 4, played two days later, Irving combined to shoot 5-for-20 and was an essential non-factor in a pair of games Cleveland was lucky to have split.
And Irving looked the part early, moving seamlessly in the first quarter by connecting on three early field goals - one more than he had in 41 Game 4 minutes - that helped erase an 8-0 Bulls lead to begin the game. Irving's hot start was important for his own confidence, but the combination of his presence on the perimeter and a hot start also freed up things on the inside for James, who not coincidentally had his best scoring half since Game 2 with Irving on the court, scoring 24 first-half points.
"Even though he’s hurt he still puts a threat on the defense and makes it easy for everybody else," said JR Smith, who had 12 points in 30 minutes.
In the third quarter the Bulls made good on their pregame promise to attack Irving on the defensive end. With Shumpert and Dellavedova locked on Rose, Irving was afforded relief in the third quarter against Mike Dunleavy. But the Bulls used their sharpshooter on a number of cuts and post-ups against the smaller Irving; the result was an 11-point quarter for Dunleavy, who went to the free throw line four times (both off Irving shooting fouls) as the Bulls narrowed a 10-point halftime deficit to as few as one.
Still, Irving gutted out his minutes in a bind. His foot appeared to act up on him early in the stanza when he fed Tristan Thompson under the basket for a layup. Hobbling down the floor, he connected on an 18-footer the next trip down, again showing some limp as he trudged back on defense. It was then that Irving showed his true "coming to grips" moment; off a James steal Irving found himself one-on-one against Joakim Noah at the rim. Irving barely got any lift as he jumped into Noah, but was able to finish off the 6-foot-11 center and bank the shot high off the glass.
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When the Bulls cut the deficit to one, 63-62, Irving responded with his second triple. He hit another jumper to extend the lead to six before the Bulls began attacking him with Dunleavy, forcing David Blatt to sub out his point guard late in the stanza. He finished the quarter with nine points on perfect shooting as the Cavs withstood the Bulls' run and took a nine-point lead into the final quarter.
"Even if I don’t have any lift, somehow I get it up to the rim and spin it the right way," Irving said. "I wouldn’t even call it a fast break. I still remember, me and Joakim tonight...I went up there and somehow put the ball at a certain angle. Physically I still have to get better, but it's just about being in the right spots."
Irving and James played a two-man game the majority of the fourth, with James' continued hot shooting giving Cleveland as much as a 17-point lead. And though the Bulls came roaring back to pull within two inside 2 minutes to play, it was Irving's steal - a deflected Joakim Noah pass Irving saved from going out of bounds - and four free throws in the final 17 seconds that capped off the win to give Cleveland a commanding 3-2 series lead.
Though both teams have used the phrase of "no player being healthy this late in the season," Irving's limitations are clear. The same player who scored a league-high 59 points earlier this season on the road against the Spurs has been relegated to guarding Kirk Hinrich in crunch time of a Game 5. Irving's teammates were vocal about wanting Irving on the court after he asked them during Game 4 if he was doing more harm than good, and tonight he proved why his teammates were right.
"I think for tonight it was just having the mental confidence and being there mentally and being OK with - I'm not 100 percent," Irving said, "but I’m going to go out there and play, be in my spots, and be ready to knock down shots when I’m open."