The questions have come at Kyrie Irving so many times that he answers almost reflexively at this point. In Cleveland, people on the street would call out to him, “How's the knee doing?” Even in San Francisco, he said Wednesday, someone brought it up, and Irving replied as he has for the past several days:
The knee's O.K. Of course I'll be playing in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
A few days ago, when asked about his health due to a litany of injuries, including a sore foot and tendinitis in that left knee, Irving said, “I'm in a good spot right now.” But at Oracle Arena, during a media session on the eve of Game 1, both Irving and his coach, David Blatt, were less definitive.
“It's an adjustment, but it's what it is at this point,” Irving said. “But I'm just going to go out there and will myself to play.”
Asked if Irving had suffered any sort of setback in the past few days, or whether he'd been held back in practice for precautionary reasons, Blatt said nothing in particular had happened, that the Cavs were merely doing their best to keep Irving healthy. But Blatt also implied it hasn't been easy to work around Irving's constantly shifting status.
“Without having Kyrie at full strength for quite some time now, preparation-wise and game-wise, playing, not playing, number of minutes, ability to perform at the level he normally does, and most imporantly to be able to function without furthering injury, 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. But that is the situation. … We play, and we play to win regardless of the situation.”
The conventional wisdom was that Irving would benefit as much as anyone (other than perhaps the concussed Klay Thompson) from the long layoff between the Eastern Conference finals and the NBA Finals. Back in Cleveland, Blatt said he'd hoped they'd soon be able to get past the point of constantly worrying about Irving. And it's possible the Cavs are playing mind games, that they're downplaying Irving's health in the hope that the Warriors might not know what to expect from him. But it also seems likely that Warriors coach Steve Kerr learned his lesson during the Memphis series earlier this postseason, when his team didn't appear fully prepared for the return of Mike Conley from a facial fracture.
The larger question is what happens if the Cavs aren't bluffing, if Irving still isn't fully ready to play against the best guard tandem in the NBA, or if he re-injures himself during the series. It's clear, at this point, that LeBron James won't be able to defeat the Warriors on his own; and it's very possible that the issue of whether the Cavs are playing mind games, or if they're truly worried about their secondary star's ability to hold up, might wind up being the key question of this entire series.
“It's definitely tough because mentally and physically you want to be in line,” Irving said. “It's just like some of the things I'm thinking about doing mentally, you know, your body just kind of stops and you catch yourself a little bit sometimes.”