Kyrie Irving is very important to the success of the Cleveland Cavaliers as they advance to the NBA Finals. This may seem self-evident, as he’s their second-best player, but I think we downplay how important he really is to the team’s aspirations of winning a title. Irving is the one thing that sets this iteration of the Cavs apart from the pre-Decision squads. Those teams were essentially just LeBron playing with a collection of players meant to complement his skills and supplement his abilities. Irving is the first Cavs player LeBron James has played with who can stand on his own and consistently generate efficient offense.
Unfortunately, Irving has been battling a knee injury that caused him to miss two games in the Hawks series before returning Tuesday night in Cleveland’s closeout game against Atlanta. Irving played well, with a very efficient 16 points on 11 shots while going 2-3 from beyond the arc in 22 minutes of play.
There were times, however, where Irving wasn’t moving fluidly and you could tell he wasn’t quite at 100 percent. I’m not a doctor, so if the doctors said he was fine I’ll take their word for it, but there were times in the third quarter where he was playing while the Cavs were up more than 20. He’s too important to this team to risk him in a blowout win to close out the series, so that was a questionable move.
Now, the Cavs get to turn their attention to the Finals, where they’ll be playing the winner of Warriors-Rockets, which will be the Warriors barring a four-game winning streak by the Rockets. There’s always the debate of whether it’s better to have a long rest before the next series or if it’s better to maintain the rhythm of playing intense basketball games to prevent being rusty for the next series. The Finals don’t start until June 4, so there will be quite a long rest for Cleveland.
For the Cavs, that debate would be laughable, because they need the rest more than anyone. Irving and LeBron have both been dealing with nagging injuries, and having the layoff between now and the Finals will be a welcome recuperation to get themselves ready for the challenge ahead.
Not only do the Cavs need Irving for the Finals, but they need him to be his best self. Whether he’ll be tasked with covering Klay Thompson or Stephen Curry (or perhaps David Blatt tries to “hide” him on somebody else when possible), Irving will have his hands full and will be expected to produce on the offensive end of the floor as well.
Golden State was the best team in the regular season and has looked the part throughout the playoffs, and Irving is matched up against the Warriors’ biggest strength. If Irving wants to show that he’s a superstar caliber player, the time for him to prove himself would be by going face-to-face with Curry and coming out on top. That may not be necessary for the Cavs to win, but Irving needs to at least give Curry a run for his money if he wants to help bring a championship back to The Land.