CHICAGO—Normally, it’s Kyrie Irving who dictates the condition of on-court ankles on a given night. Friday, that was his problem. The shifty point guard sat in the locker room after the Cavaliers’ last-second loss, eyes cast downward, two bulging ice packs on his knees and both feet soaking in a freezing tub. Irving labored through much of Cleveland’s 99–96 Game 3 loss after appearing to turn his ankle early on, shooting just 3 of 13 from the floor for 11 points. To make matters worse, his counterpart Derrick Rose seized the win with a banked-in buzzer-beating three ball off a broken play. Still, Irving would be heading to the podium after the game; he’d have to talk.
Meanwhile, Cavaliers head coach David Blatt spoke in the other room. He was asked about the fact that Irving recorded zero assists, a difficult faux-pas of a feat for a point guard, particularly with his stature around the league. Instead, Blatt volunteered an injury update, with a surprise coming in the admission of its timeframe.
[daily_cut.NBA]“Perhaps the guys he threw the ball to didn’t hit the shots. Kyrie has been playing hurt,” Blatt said. “He has been giving us all he has and will continue to do that. He had two great games and today was just a little less successful. He has a sore foot and is playing through it.”
The cat was out of the bag, and Irving, alongside LeBron James, took questions shortly afterward. Previously unaware his coach had made the injury public, when asked, he addressed it anyway, citing Game 2 of Cleveland’s first-round series against Boston as the scene of the original setback. Irving said he’d been receiving treatment throughout the playoffs.
“I don’t make any excuses for myself, obviously I was just trying to play through it as best I can,” he said. “I know coach is trying to protect me with what he said, 3 for 13, that’s not like me. I’m not going to hang my head down on having a bad foot. I’m just going to continue to have that mindset to go out and compete for my brothers.”
Though James stepped up as a playmaker with 14 assists, he shot just 8 for 25 from the floor and turned the ball over seven times, frustrated by Jimmy Butler tracking him the entire game. Coupled with Irving’s struggles it was difficult for Cleveland to maintain control, never ahead by more than eight amid 19 lead changes and 17 ties.
When the game got chippy, the Cavaliers leaned on Tristan Thompson (10 points, 13 rebounds in 41 minutes) to center a small crunch-time lineup, and almost got the job done, with J.R. Smith draining a difficult, leaning shot from deep to tie the game at 96 heading into Rose’s final sequence. Despite a good showing from Matthew Dellavedova off the bench (10 points, four assists), Irving logged 38 minutes and was unable to offer much help.
“I tried to stay out there, use myself as a decoy at the end, whether it’s setting screens, getting steals, do whatever it took,” Irving said. His efforts weren’t especially helpful, as he shot 0 for 5 while playing all 12 minutes of the fourth quarter. Still, give him credit for fighting through it. “I was just going to lay it out there on the line. We started out the game, I tried a right-hand drive, I came off it [funny] … just little plays, the acceleration like that … just got to continue to get treatment, come into Game 4 and be ready to play.”
While Blatt may have indeed been trying to protect a young star navigating his first playoffs, the status of Irving’s foot now looms large over the rest of this series and possibly beyond. Whatever value there was in keeping things under wraps has been lost. Irving made no excuses for himself, but Blatt made one for him. He didn’t put it on Irving in a direct sense, but he also didn’t have to pull the injury concerns out of his pocket, thus spawning the storyline. Now the issue will follow Irving, nag him until his ankle doesn’t.
After James handled the brunt of the remaining questions—Chicago’s improved rebounding (a 54–39 Bulls split), Rose’s shot, the third-quarter double technical after dunking on Joakim Noah (“The best way to retaliate is to make a play.”)—he too, brought up the ankle.
“No one’s going to feel sorry for us, no one feels sorry for Kyrie because he’s hurt,” James said. "The injuries, it’s killing him inside, because I know what type of competitor he is.
“He gave us 40 minutes on one foot. If he has to do it again on Sunday, as frustrating as it is for him, he’ll do it again.”
The last question, too, was directed at James, regarding Irving’s zero assists. After a similar performance from his point guard in a two-point, early-season loss in Utah (34 points, nada on the assists), James had been vocal on how that was unacceptable and how the Cavaliers couldn’t afford it. Would Irving get a pass tonight, because of the circumstances?
As the question was asked, Irving shook his head, chuckled under his breath into the microphone. His body language offered a loud “no.” Though Irving won’t make excuses, there’s an asterisk that follows each performance, a new microscope to perform under that hangs over this series from here on out.
“It’s not about Kyrie,” James responded. “None of us get a pass tonight. I have to be better.” He cited his seven turnovers, poor shooting, a lone steal. Where Blatt offered Irving a figurative cushion, James chose instead to accept the blame. He'll get the chance to make it right on Sunday afternoon.
“It ain’t about Kyrie," James insisted. "Put it on me. Kyrie’s gonna be great.” Cleveland, now trailing 2-1 on the road, will need him to be. Punctually, at that.