Will Kyrie Irving's knee injury be too much for the Cavaliers to overcome in the Finals?
OAKLAND, Calif.—There would be no answers until morning at the earliest, no prognosis for Kyrie Irving’s knee and by extension, for the Cleveland Cavaliers’ chances of winning the NBA championship until the sun came up. Answers, no, but hints? There were plenty of those. There was Irving, the Cavs’ All-Star point guard on whose questionable health the series could turn, leaving the locker room on crutches after their 108–100 overtime loss to the Golden State Warriors on Thursday night. There was the way he grimaced in pain when he went down during the overtime period and took off his jersey in frustration as he limped off the floor toward the locker room after playing magnificently to that point. The game still hung in the balance, but Irving knew his night, at the very least, was over.
There were no answers, but there was Irving’s intuition. “I don’t know exactly what happened,” he said. “It’s a little different than the other time. I’m a little worried.”
So are the Cavs. Asked if he had heard anything about Irving’s condition after the game, Cavs guard J.R. Smith said, “No, nothing. You heard anything? Let me know if you hear something. Seriously. Let me know.” But on this night, the Cavs’ eyes told them more than their ears. “It was very tough to see,” LeBron James said. “I just see how hard he worked these last eight days just to get himself to play at this level tonight. Seeing him walk out of the locker room on crutches just now, that's a tough blow for our team.”
It was an even tougher blow, perhaps, than the loss itself. Irving had spent the eight-day layoff before the Finals diligently rehabbing his left knee, which was suffering from tendonitis. After missing Games 2 and 3 of the Eastern Conference finals against Atlanta, he played in Game 4, but he didn’t seem particularly optimistic about his chances of being effective against the Warriors. “I’m just going to will myself to play,” he said before the series, adding that there was “no way” he would be 100%.
But on Thursday night, it seemed for the longest time that Irving had been sandbagging, because he looked great, outplaying Stephen Curry until the injury occurred, and the Cavs looked more than capable of making this a long, competitive series. For 48 minutes, the Cavaliers could hardly have asked for more. Everything they needed to happen to stay with the Warriors was happening. James was in hero mode, scoring 44 points in one of the greatest postseason games of his career, which is saying quite a lot. Tristan Thompson was all over the backboards, so relentless that his official numbers—six offensive rebounds and 15 total—made it seem that the stat sheet was cheating him. Timofey Mozgov was outplaying Golden State's Andrew Bogut, beating him down the floor and converting enough pick-and-roll feeds from his teammates to chip in 16 points.
And more encouraging than any of that was Irving, who finished with 23 points, seven rebounds and six assists, looked frisky and dangerous again. He flew coast-to-coast after a Golden State turnover and finished a difficult layup over Draymond Green. He broke down Warrior defenders with deft ballhandling that reminded everyone that Steph Curry isn’t the only player in this series who can do magical things off the dribble. He even blocked two of Curry’s shots, the second one denying the league MVP what seemed like a sure layup with 26 seconds left and the game tied at 98.
“Kyrie was doing his thing,” Smith said. “He was feeling good, and we were all feeling good.” When the game went into overtime, there was the feeling that no matter the outcome of Game 1, the tenor of the series had changed because Irving was back.
But then he was gone again. Driving against Klay Thompson during the overtime, he took a hard step and his knee seemed to buckle beneath him. Irving’s father, Drederick came down from the stands into the locker room area to check on his son, but he offered no comment to reporters. “I can’t give you any specifics yet,” Cavs coach David Blatt said after the game. “I just don’t know.”
All that was known was that Irving would have an MRI on Friday. “I hope he can play,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “I mean that. You probably don’t believe me, but I mean that. I hope he’s OK for the rest of the series.”
Everyone does, no one more than the Cavaliers. As spectacular as James’ performance was in Game 1, he clearly needs a consistent second scoring option for the Cavs to have a chance in this series. “Well, it’s next man up,” James said, when asked how badly Irving’s absence would hurt the Cavs. But of course, it’s not that simple. The Cavaliers have two days to regroup before Game 2, but their future may depend less on what happens on the court Sunday than on what happens in a doctor’s office before that. There were no answers about Irving on Thursday night, and for Cleveland that might have been a good thing. When they finally come, the Cavs may not want to hear them.