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.

[NBC SPORTS SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

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."


Bulls Talk Podcast: How will the Bulls fill their PG need? Options in draft and free agency


Bulls Talk Podcast: How will the Bulls fill their PG need? Options in draft and free agency

Mark Schanowski, Mark Strotman and Kendall Gill discuss myriad topics, including where Otto Porter Jr.’s role stands heading into next season, how the Bulls may improve at the point guard position this summer and who they could potentially target in the NBA Draft.

4:15 – Analyzing where Lauri Markkanen and Otto Porter can improve next season

11:40 – Potential Bulls’ free agent PG targets

16:36 – Draft analysis and Darius Garland’s and Coby White’s potential fit in Chicago

23:04 Other targets for the Bulls in the first round such as Texas Tech’s Jarrett Culver

25:34 – Damian Lillard/NBA Playoffs discussion



Season in Review: Zach LaVine shows promise in Year 1 of new deal


Season in Review: Zach LaVine shows promise in Year 1 of new deal

Over the next month we'll be recapping each of the Bulls' individual 2018-19 regular seasons.

Previous reviews: Lauri Markkanen | Shaq Harrison | Ryan Arcidiacono | Otto Porter  | Wayne Selden

Preseason expectations: The Bulls’ decision to immediately match the $78 miller offer sheet the Kings gave Zach LaVine was telling. Despite an ugly first season in Chicago, LaVine clearly had the trust and commitment from the Bulls front office to be the healthy player they had hoped he could become. Armed with that $78 million contract and the 47th highest annual salary, expectations were set high for the 23-year-old.

He also set them for himself, noting at Media Day that the upcoming season would be different because it was his first healthy offseason in years. That mattered, and there was optimism that LaVine could become the kind of scorer he was prior to tearing his ACL. The potential to form a 1-2 punch with Lauri Markkannen and set into motion the next chapter of the rebuild was a necessity for a Bulls team without much talent around them on the offensive end.

What went right: He proved his worth. We’ll get to some of his shortcomings later, but it’s impossible to deny that LaVine was worth every penny in Year 1 of his new contract. He was 18th in the NBA in scoring – 16 of the 17 ahead of him were All-Stars – and posted career-bests across the board. He was critical in the first six weeks of the season while the Bulls were without Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn and Bobby Portis. LaVine was the constant in the first half of the season, took on an enormous usage burden, and kept the Bulls afloat.

LaVine is never going to be a pass-first option, and the notion of him running the point at any time for the Bulls isn’t a great one, but he did distribute fairly well. Of note, his pick-and-roll game with Wendell Carter and pick-and-pop action with Lauri Markkanen were both beneficial plays. LaVine looked comfortable in that action and it will add another element to his game once the Bulls find a point guard to run the offense. Having ball handlers and initiators on the wing is a bonus, and it looks like the Bulls have a capable one in LaVine.

We’ll also add that his free throws were a nice touch. LaVine averaged 13.6 drives per game, 12th in the NBA among qualified players and fourth among non-point guards. It resulted in 3.2 free throw attempts per game, trailing only James Harden among all players with at least 13 drives per game. LaVine averaged 6.0 free throw attempts per game, a career-best, and had a knack for finding open windows that allowed him to get to the basket. He should only improve in that category as the Bulls add pieces around him to give him more space to work.

What went wrong: LaVine still hasn’t done much to improve his defense. LaVine’s DRPM was 194th among 227 guards, and if advanced numbers aren’t your thing then the eye test proved as much. He still has trouble staying with defenders away from the ball, he doesn’t provide much in the way of help defense and at times he still looks uninterested. Granted, he was asked to do so much for the Bulls offense that he’s allowed to take some plays off on the other end, but he spoke a big game about being able to improve as a defender and we didn’t really see it.

It wouldn’t be as big an issue on another team, but the Bulls are desperate for defensive help. They ranked 28th in efficiency for a second straight season, and for as much firepower as they’ve racked up on offense, the wins won’t come until the defense improves. It’s not on LaVine to be a lockdown defender, but improvements are needed.

The Stat: 19 on 51%

Call it cherry-picked but this is still excellent company that LaVine and Lauri Markkanen find themselves in. Whether you think LaVine will become a star or simply be a scoring piece to complement around other top options, his trajectory is promising. In the limited minutes he and Markkanen have played together, it’s clear the two pieces work as a 1-2 scoring punch. This, of course, allows the Bulls to focus on other areas like drafting a defender in Wendell Carter Jr. or adding shooting on the wing in Otto Porter. There are plenty of steps to take during a rebuild, but finding two guys who score efficiently night in and night out is a big piece of it.

2019-20 Expectations: What does LaVine have in store for Year 2? He proved he can be a primary scoring option – though he may cede those responsibilities to Lauri Markkanen – and was an above average distributor on the wing. He can drop 20 points in his sleep, has no problem getting to the free throw line and improved his 3-point field goal percentage. The next step is to improve on his efficiency, which should be helped out if Markkanen can take his own next step and take some of the burden off LaVine. LaVine goes from a nice scorer to an All-Star if he gets his percentages up to 48/39/85 (last year he was 46/37/83).

He'll continue to be called upon as a leader, too, as Jim Boylen gives him more responsibility in such a role. Incredibly, he’ll be entering his sixth season in the NBA this fall. He said multiple times that the Bulls need to learn how to win, and the roster will be looking to LaVine on how to get that done.