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Injuries test Cavaliers' ticking clock on putting best team together

By MARLA RIDENOUR • Mar 17, 2017 at 10:44 PM


LOS ANGELES — Kyrie Irving said his left knee had been bothering him for 48 hours, but he wanted to make it through Thursday night's home game against the Utah Jazz.

But when the Cavaliers' All-Star guard sat at the beginning of the fourth quarter, the knee got tight. So during the first timeout, he had one question for LeBron James.

"You got this?" Irving said he asked the four-time league MVP. Of late, they have been more of a dynamic duo than perhaps either envisioned when James returned in 2014.

Of course, James responded in the affirmative. His 17 points in the final quarter carried the Cavs to a 91-83 victory.

But after the game, as a seemingly endless litany of injuries continued to befall the defending NBA champions, James might have wondered how he would answer Irving's question in the long term.

Can James deliver another title with a banged-up team around him? Will the left shoulder sprain suffered by Iman Shumpert against the Jazz or Irving's knee tightness, both deemed not serious by coach Tyronn Lue, prevent Lue from sorting out his best combinations before the regular-season ends?

Will Kyle Korver, whom Lue said was "very close" to returning from a sore tendon in his left foot, be the same effective 3-point bomber? Is J.R. Smith, playing his fifth game Thursday after December surgery on his fractured right wrist, on the verge of finding his 2015-16 form?

Going into Saturday's game at Staples Center against the Los Angeles Clippers, Cavs players have missed a total of 112 games because of injury and illness. Against the Jazz, they regained one, as Kevin Love returned following arthroscopic surgery on his left knee, and lost three. Derrick Williams was a pregame scratch with a bruised right quad. Shumpert took himself out of the game in the third quarter, as did Irving. Lue said Shumpert is day-to-day.

Just 15 regular-season games remain. James seemed somewhat subdued when talking about the injury issues afterward, praising the training staff while noting the situation is out of their control.

Asked if the adversity might toughen them, Smith was candid.

"I would hope so at this point," Smith said. "The last couple months we've been dropping like flies. So little nagging injuries we do have, they cause us to fight through for sure."

Smith was talking about physical toughness as the Cavs feel the urgency to get on the court together and find their groove. But it may take all their mental strength as well.

Lue was in a good mood, feeling better after his recent bout with a sinus/ear infection and looking forward to the trip to LA, where he played for the "Showtime" Lakers. He said he has a plan on how to put the team together when all are healthy, and he felt comfortable enough to joke about it.

"I have an idea, but so did the people fighting Mike Tyson. Everybody has a plan till you get hit," Lue said.

"I have a plan going into it, of course, but you never know. We're going to need these games to figure it out, but that still shouldn't stop us from winning. Just continue to keep playing well, continue to build our defense and we're going to be fine. We'll figure it out."

Since he fractured his left kneecap in Game 1 of the 2015 NBA Finals, Irving knows the Cavs may be cautious in the coming days, even while Irving said his leaving the game Thursday was "precautionary." He said he was going to see his masseuse and get treatment Friday morning.

"We'll see in the next few days. I'm hoping that I don't have to miss any days, but if it really comes down to that, the bigger picture is way more important than a few days," Irving said. "But as of right now I'm fine."

Lue said Williams might be able to play against the Clippers, the start of a four-game, three-city road trip that also includes Denver and Charlotte.

Smith provided good news on the Shumpert front.

"I've seen Shump go out time and time again and never really know what the case may be. But it was a great feeling when I walked back in and he said it was nothing serious," Smith said of his former New York Knicks teammate.

The return of Love should help if Irving is forced to sit, although Love's minutes restriction is likely to continue. Playing 19 minutes against the Jazz, Love scored 10 points, eight in the first quarter, and pulled down nine rebounds.

"Just wanted to get that first rebound, that first bucket. Air-balled a 3, felt good. Just little things like that knocked the rust off," Love said. "I was jawing with Ty a little bit. I knew my minute restriction was right around 20 and I was closing in on it and (Gordon) Hayward came to double, I threw the ball away and then he took me out. I was a little upset that I didn't get to leave on a high note, but I guess he wants me hungry to play more."

Lue will need a lot of hungry Cavs down the stretch. James said the players will have to be on point in film sessions, shootarounds, occasional practices and personal film study.

But Lue's spirits seemed high, even though putting it all together may be a last-minute proposition.

"It's part of the game. It's a long season. We're not the only team that's going through it," Lue said. "With Kyrie and Shump not being serious, Kev working his way back and Korver being close, these last 12-13 games we can finally start figuring out our rotation. I think that will make things a lot better. I'm just excited about that."


(c)2017 Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio)

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