Kyrie Irving overcomes limitations to kickstart Cavaliers


Kyrie Irving overcomes limitations to kickstart Cavaliers

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.

[MORE: Bulls can't complete comeback, fall to Cavs in Game 5]

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."


Zach LaVine improving his chances for Eastern Conference All-Star spot

Zach LaVine improving his chances for Eastern Conference All-Star spot

Zach LaVine let it be known the moment the NBA announced the All-Star game was coming to Chicago in 2020 that he would love to represent the Bulls in the Sunday night main event.

LaVine’s chances looked pretty slim when both he and the team got out of the gates slowly this season. LaVine averaged 20.2 points as the Bulls finished October with a 1-4 record, and he shot just 42.6% from the field in a 5-10 November.

But since that time, LaVine has picked up his offensive output, averaging 25.1 points in December and 30 points so far in January. He’s also had two of the best fourth-quarter performances of the season, carrying the Bulls to come-from-behind wins at Charlotte and vs. Cleveland at the United Center last Saturday.

In that road game against the Hornets, LaVine scored a career-high 49 points, making 13 of his 17 attempts from 3-point range, including the game-winner at the buzzer. LaVine finished one shy of the NBA record of 14 3-point makes, set by Klay Thompson against the Bulls last season.

Against the Cavaliers, LaVine scored 21 of his 42 points in the 4th quarter to help the home team erase a 15-point deficit heading into the final 12 minutes. Plus, he outdueled All-Star reserve candidate Bradley Beal earlier this month, outscoring the Wizards’ guard 30-23 in a 115-106 Bulls win.

LaVine faces a lot of competition for the four reserve spots that are potentially available for guards (three frontcourt, two backcourt, and two wild card players will be selected by conference coaches), and it could come down to whether the coaches put more emphasis on win-loss record or individual statistics. 

If Atlanta’s Trae Young and Boston’s Kemba Walker get the starting spots, LaVine will be competing with the likes of Beal, Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons, Toronto’s Kyle Lowry, Brooklyn’s Spencer Dinwiddie, Detroit’s Derrick Rose, Boston’s Jaylen Brown and Indiana’s Malcolm Brogdon for anywhere between two and four spots, depending on how the wild card selections fall.

Given the recent history of coaches’ votes, you can expect Simmons and Lowry to get the nod for the two reserve backcourt spots, with LaVine and Beal the top candidates for one or both wild card selections. Plus, there’s always the chance NBA Commissioner Adam Silver will have to replace one of the 12 Eastern Conference All-Stars because of injury, with LaVine the likely top choice to represent the home city.

Zach has told reporters he’s more likely to do the Slam Dunk contest Saturday night if he’s selected for the Eastern Conference squad, so a lot could be riding on the announcement of All-Star reserves on January 30th.

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Bulls Talk Podcast: Who makes it to the All-Star Game?


Bulls Talk Podcast: Who makes it to the All-Star Game?

The NBA All-Star Game voting is almost up and the biggest question is if Zach Lavine make the cut. Jason Goff is joined by Will Perdue, and Kendall Gill as they give their official East and West All-Stars for this season.

(2:05) - If Zach Lavine makes the ASG, who doesn't go?

(3:54) - Eastern Conference selections

(8:12) - Debate on if Trae Young should go to the ASG

(13:48) - Does the League have influence on who makes the ASG?

(15:38) - Should Lavine use Dunk Contest as leverage for the ASG?

(18:23) - How Chicago will react to having All-Star Weekend

(19:15) - Chance that Derrick Rose will make the ASG

(20:51) - Western Conference selections

(22:26) - Fan voting needs to be gone

Listen to the episode here or in the embedded player below.

Bulls Talk Podcast


Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Bulls easily on your device.