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Irving to 'will himself' past knee injury to play in Finals

Cleveland's star point guard isn't about to let his lingering left knee tendinitis keep him off the court now

POSTED: Jun 3, 2015 9:10 PM ET
UPDATED: Jun 4, 2015 11:51 AM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner


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Kyrie Irving tends to be a cranky patient, so the constant poking and prodding that comes with an ongoing injury -- not so much from the Cleveland Cavaliers' medical staff but from the public at large -- got old a round or two ago in these NBA playoffs.

Now that Irving and the Cavaliers are poised to start The Finals against the Golden State Warriors Thursday night at Oracle Arena, the All-Star point guard is taking the path of least resistance, at least on the record.

"I'm just asked all the time whether it be the regular person walking around in Cleveland or someone here in San Francisco," Irving said Wednesday before his team's practice. "I'm walking down the street and they ask me how my knee's doing. I'm like, 'I'm fine. Thank you. My knee is OK.' It's like, 'Are you playing? Are you playing in Game 1?' I'm like, 'Yeah I'll be playing.'

"It's an adjustment but ... I'm just going to go out there and will myself to play."

Will himself to play? We can assume from that that Irving's sore left knee is neither fine nor OK. And it is weighing on the Cavaliers' minds.

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Irving has been hobbled for almost all of Cleveland's playoff run. He sprained his right foot in Game 2 of the first round against Boston, aggravated it early in the conference semifinals against Chicago and then developed tendinitis in his left knee as a compensating injury, that thing that happens when you alter your movement or stride to favor the initial malady.

Irving's left knee caused him to miss Games 2 and 3 of the East finals against Atlanta before logging 22 minutes in Game 4 as Cleveland completed the sweep. That means Irving has played just once in the past two weeks and not at all over the nine days leading up to The Finals.

And still he's not healthy. The Cavaliers tone grew more clipped and serious over the weekend when addressing Irving's availability, not so much due to any fresh setback but to the dwindling amount of time for rest and treatment, and what little progress Irving had made.

General manager David Griffin admitted Wednesday that Irving still is playing with discomfort, and said the key for him and for the team will be Irving coming to terms with whatever pain or limitations he has. There is nothing structurally wrong with the knee that might require surgery, Griffin said. It's just on Irving to cope with not having his signature speed and quickness, and figuring out other ways to be effective.

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"He's going to have to be at a point where he's mind-body-and-spirit-connected to what he is." Griffin said as the Cavaliers took the practice floor. "If that's what he thought he was on Friday, great. If it's less than that, great. But he's got to be comfortable with whatever it is he's at."

Griffin noted, too, that how a player feels at the start of a playoff series often has little to do with how he feels once it's underway. Even at its relatively leisurely pace, The Finals will come at Irving faster than anything has over the past week-plus.

"I'll tell you, there's not one guy in the series who's 100 percent. ... Everyone at this point in the playoffs has tendinitis, arthritis, contusions.

– Golden State Warriors center Andrew Bogut

"We had six days in between Chicago and Atlanta, and he felt fantastic for Game 1 of Atlanta," Griffin said. "And then it was what it was. So in a weird sort of way, it's almost irrelevant how he feels before Game 1. It's how he feels after Game 1."

Don't expect Golden State to show any sympathy or ease up at all on Irving.

"I'll tell you, there's not one guy in the series who's 100 percent," Warriors center Andrew Bogut said. "We've got guys banged up -- just 'cause they're not talking in the media about it doesn't mean a guy's healthy. Everyone at this point in the playoffs has tendinitis, arthritis, contusions. We had someone with a concussion. We're not feeling sorry for anyone. We're not going to change things. We expect him to play the way he played all season. He still a legitimate threat."

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There's a guts factor to this that might or might not be a good thing. Yes, Irving wants to be on the court for Cleveland. Yes, he will play hard, and as well as he can for as long as he can. Like Golden State's Draymond Green said of Irving Wednesday: "It's The Finals -- he'll do what he needs to do to be out there."

And as LeBron James said: "It's difficult on him for sure. Whatever he can give us, it's going to be great for our team. Kyrie at 50 [percent], Kyrie at 60, Kyrie at 70 is better than Kyrie at zero. When that No. 2 Irving steps onto the court, he's a presence. And the defense has to be aware of him, has to account for him just because of his abilities to make plays."

That's not necessarily so.

In the regular season, the Cavaliers were much better with Irving than without him (52-23 when Irving played vs. 1-6 when he did not). They averaged nearly 11 points more per 100 possessions when he was on the floor and, when he wasn't, the Cavs actually ran a deficit of 2.7 points.

Whatever he can give us, it's going to be great for our team. Kyrie at 50 [percent], Kyrie at 60, Kyrie at 70 is better than Kyrie at zero.

– Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James

But in the postseason, Cleveland has been about as potent whether Irving has been in the game or not. Defensively, though, it has been about 8.7 points worse per 100 possessions when he's been playing. That demonstrates the difference between Irving healthy and Irving hobbled.

And there already was a question about whom Irving would guard in the Warriors' multi-pronged attack, even on two good knees.

That's why Irving's ability to deal with pain and limitations is only part of the story. The other is his ability to be effective and not hurt the Cavaliers' performance. All the want-to in the world won't matter if Irving can't-do. It will be up to coach David Blatt and his staff to watch him closely and even make the tough calls to sit him down.

"Those are things that are constantly under consideration and constantly on our minds as a staff and as a team," Blatt said. "It's made it difficult."

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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