CLEVELAND —Typically, All-Star performers aren't X factors and X factors aren't All-Stars.
But because nothing has been typical about this postseason for Kyrie Irving, that's precisely what he is — the Cleveland Cavaliers' X factor when his team meets the Warriors in the NBA Finals.
Fact is, if you're really talking “typical,” Irving's postseasons typically have been off-seasons. For all his achievements and accolades, it wasn't until this spring that the 23-year-old guard actually was able to participate in the playoffs.
Irving, the No. 1 player picked in the 2011 draft after playing only 11 games in one season at Duke, hit his first postseason with a hunger. He scored 30 points in the first-round opener against Boston and then veered into one of the most challenging six-week periods of his basketball life. Irving sprained his right foot in Game 2 against the Celtics and has been coping with, playing through and cursing at injuries ever since.
“Ya know, being hurt sucks,” Irving said Friday. “Especially in a time like [this].”
That sore foot led to tendinitis in Irving's left knee, a compensating injury that crowded out the original one as his and the team's chief concern. Normally one of the league's fastest players, he moved for most of the series versus Chicago in the conference semifinals like Fred Sanford — this wasn't his cagey Uncle Drew character sandbagging the young guns in those soft drink commercials.
Struggling to keep up on the court, laboring through treatment before and after, taking a side trip to Florida for a consultation with noted sports orthopedist Dr. James Andrews, Irving scored 12 points or fewer four times in the six games — something he had done only 13 times in 75 game during the season — and averaged 16.4 on 42.2 percent shooting. Said LeBron James: “Kyrie at 50 percent, Kyrie at 60 percent is better than [no] Kyrie at all.”
Irving winces over that sort of faint praise. He was better off than Love, whose dislocated shoulder and subsequent surgery has drydocked him for the postseason, but only barely in trying to pressure the Bulls without being his attacking, probing self.
“Basketball for me is all based off instincts,” Irving said. “Going out there when you're playing hurt, it's a mental struggle and a mental game that you're playing with yourself. Your mind is thinking one thing and your body just won't allow you to do it. Knowing when they're in line, it's the utmost confidence. Because my game is predicated on stopping and going, and being able to finish at the rim and make plays.”
Then Irving — whose body has benefited from Cleveland's time off since it eliminated the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday — said something that ought to cause heads in the Bay Area to snap around.
“I'm in a good spot right now,” Irving said.
The care, the consultation and some 1-on-1 court work with assistant coach Phil Handy has paid off. Irving practiced with the rest of his team on Sunday, and according to head coach David Blatt, he still wasn't “himself.” But that still left 96 hours or more before tip-off in Game 1, and at this point, lower expectations for Irving might actually turn into sandbagging.
At his best, Irving has one of the two best handles in the NBA — Warriors fans are intimately familiar with the other guy —; and he's one of only five players in league history to average at least 18.0 points, 5.0 assists and 3.0 rebounds in his first four seasons.
Even fully healthy, Irving's best defense is his quicksilver offense. He'll be matched up to start against Stephen Curry but likely will find his way to Harrison Barnes rather than Curry or Klay Thompson in an attempt by the Cavaliers to lessen his defensive exposure.
Where Irving will be the X factor is at the other end. If he can get to the rim, where he's one of the best finishers among backcourt players, and unleash his 3-point shot, Irving potentially will draw fouls on Warriors center Andrew Bogut, draw energy from Curry and prevent the Warriors from loading up on James with defensive help.
Cleveland won't win a championship with only James providing All-Star caliber offense. But in tandem with Irving, along with timely contributions from their teammates, the Cavaliers might have just enough.
Blatt was in a buoyant mood over the weekend as Irving's mobility improved. Not checking the pulse of his point guard's health daily is a legitimate goal by Thursday.
“More so for him, to be able to get out there and be comfortable,” Blatt said. “Not [to] have to worry 'Am I going to hurt today? Is it gonna get worse if I play? Is it going to bother me from doing the things I normally do at both ends of the court?' So I'm hoping … he can get out there and play without worry, without concern.”
The worry and concern, at that point, would shift westward.