Here are three facts about Kyrie Irving.
Kyrie Irving is a top 10 point guard in the NBA. Kyrie Irving did not play like a top 10 point guard in Games 1 and 2 of the NBA Finals. Kyrie Irving once had a bad knee injury. Here’s a fourth: Kyrie Irving very much looked like a top 10 point guard in Game 3.
One interpretation of these facts is that when Irving doesn’t look like himself, he is not himself, and that’s (soft) evidence he must be injured. But injuries and elite basketball are never that simple, especially when an exceptionally entertaining comeback game immediately throws that narrative into question. No one gets to executively decide a player is injured because he looked bad.
How bad? Let’s recap. Through the first two games, Irving shot 40 percent from the field with seven turnovers. He was averaging 21.5 points and 4.5 assists. This from a man who, at various points in the playoffs, scored 42 points (Game 4 vs. Boston), 37 points (Game 1 vs. Indiana) and 24 points with 5 rebounds, 9 assists and four steals (Game 4 vs. Toronto). This is a player who is on the cusp of the 50-40-90 club and yet the number one descriptor of his performance in the first two games of the Finals was “garbage fire.”
So, going into Game 3, a re-aggravated knee injury sounded like a reasonable explanation. A fractured kneecap took him out of Game 1 of the 2015 Finals, requiring six months of rehab after which he returned, played the 2016 season through a seven-game title series, then the Olympics, moving swiftly into the 2016-17 season and through today. He’s missed games here and there for his hamstring and quad and, in April, soreness in his previously-injured knee.
In Game 2, Nate Jones, co-signed by ESPN’s J.A. Adande, floated the idea that Irving was not 100 percent:
Reference was, of course, made to the end of the Celtics series when, despite a rolled ankle, Kyrie very much played like himself. And yet, a string of good games is not a counterargument against injury and the theory was relatively well-received.
However, the Warriors, specifically Klay Thompson, provided a rather strong alternative explanation for Irving’s play. Allow me to pass it briefly to The Step Back’s own Scott Rafferty, who gave just such an explanation for the first two games. Scott take it away:
"In total, Irving is 0-for-5 against Thompson in isolation and 3-for-9 against him in the pick-and-roll. The only success he has had scoring against Thompson is on a handful of backdoor cuts aided by the gravity of Kyle Korver and LeBron James."
"That’s important because Irving was one of the best isolation scorers — 94.9 percentile with 1.12 points per possession — and pick-and-roll scorers — 82.9 percentile with 0.96 points per possession — during the regular season."
The breakneck pace both teams have committed to is another factor that could be influencing Irving’s performances, good and bad, as is added responsibility on defense and “constantly having to be on alert,” as Tyronn Lue puts it.
Moreover, Irving has never been especially consistent. Even his most ardent advocates will give you that. The nature of a sweep-heavy playoffs makes it hard to really judge Irving’s consistency, but this chart doesn’t help his case.
And yet while Kyrie may not be the most consistent, he does usually have the ol’ clutch gene, historically bringing his game when it’s most needed. Like, say, Game 5, 6, and 7 of the 2016 Finals when he had 30 points, 41 points and 26 points, respectively.
In any case, so much of Kyrie Irving’s struggles in Game 1 and 2 can be explained by the games themselves. Historically, in match ups against the Warriors, he’s played “uncharacteristically” in the games they lost and exceptionally in the games they won. It’s not exactly fun to see a great player stunted by an opposing team, but you only need to look to last year’s Finals to see that Irving can play wildly different games at peak health in one series. This is just kind of how Kyrie Irving plays against the Warriors and it must be frustrating as hell for Cavs fans.
True to form, Irving showed up aggressively in Game 3 to the tune of 38 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists — a line that somehow underscores how impressive he looked. How much he looked like himself. It was From Dumpster Fire to Masterpiece: The Kyrie Irving Story. And it was almost too on-the-nose when he took, and missed, a misguided 25-foot 3-pointer with 26 seconds left.
Short shots can be a sign of tired legs from “the frantic defensive activity” the Warriors demand. Short shots can also be a sign of knee trouble.
Bad play can be a sign of good defense. Bad play can also be a sign of fatigue. Or mental stress. Or, yes, injury.
Playing well, or right, or like yourself, doesn’t necessarily negate any of this either.
At a certain point, we have to accept that professional athletes are always playing with a degree of wear and tear on their bodies. Yet when a player has a proven consistency, it’s hard not to wonder if there’s something more than nerves or choking at play. But in any given scenario, there is a lot of information we don’t know. There is only so much we can ever understand or explain about what determines an athlete’s performance and how their bodies respond.
We like clean narratives. Heroes, villains. Davids, Goliaths. When something threatens that narrative, we want an easy explanation. Kyrie is supposed to make this series competitive. For a night, he did. We may never know whether Kyrie is playing injured, the only thing we do know is that for two games he didn’t look like his best self. And then, he did. In the post mortem on his play, sometimes that’s all there is to say.