A year ago after suffering a fractured kneecap in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, Kyrie Irving retreated into his bubble.
The then-23-year-old appreciated the “open dialogue” and support from his Cavaliers teammates, including a FaceTime session with Iman Shumpert while Shumpert was in the locker room dealing with an injury in Game 3. But even with their texts and calls and contact on social media, Irving admitted he didn’t ask for their advice.
Instead, he chose his own path.
“For things like that you’ve kind of got to figure it out on your own,” Irving said during a private conversation Friday morning at Air Canada Centre.
“I’m really just an introvert, so when things are not going the way I want them to go I’ve got to go on my own and read a lot and dissect what’s really important to me and how do I attack it and how do I become better from it.”
Asked if he was reading about basketball or his injury, he said, “Naw, just reading.”
Irving emerged on Dec. 20, two months later than the initial projection after he underwent surgery for the injury suffered in a collision with the Golden State Warriors’ Klay Thompson. As Irving returned to the league’s grind, he wasn’t the point guard who dazzles veteran teammates with his crossover dribbles and stutter steps and imaginative moves around the basket, at least physically.
But mentally, Irving was stronger than before. He had a clear picture of the kind of player he wanted to become and where he wanted to go.
As he comes full circle on Thursday, when the Cavs open the NBA Finals, Irving is not trying to bury the past. He’s not trying to forget the grueling rehab, which included having to first learn to walk, then jump, then run again.
The Cavs organization might be hoping to leave history behind, history like The Shot, The Decision, Comic Sans and Jim Chones’ broken foot. But for Irving, the last year has shaped his future.
Being a three-time All-Star is no longer enough for the player picked first overall in 2011. Now 24, Irving is pursing greatness and wants championships to go with it.
“As I’ve gotten older it’s become very, very clear of the things I want to accomplish and what’s really important,” Irving said. “It’s definitely tunnel vision now. Coming in as a 19-year-old to being on this team now, if you would have told me five years ago that this would have been possible and this would have been happening I probably wouldn’t have believed you. Coming into the situation I did, it was a learning experience to begin with and it still is. I’m happy for it, though.”
To end Cleveland’s 52-year championship drought, the Cavs will need their Big Three of LeBron James, Kevin Love and Irving. The spotlight might be on Love, who has had his highs and lows in the postseason, but it should be on Irving. Except for his 13-point performance in a Game 3 road loss in the conference finals, Irving has been the model of consistency.
He’s scored fewer than 20 points in two of 12 postseason games. He’s shot 50 percent or better from the field in eight, including six of the past seven. Take away his 3-for-19 effort in Game 3 against the Raptors, and Irving has connected on 50.4 percent of his attempts in the playoffs. He scored 30 points and made 12-of-24 Friday in the closeout Game 6 victory in Toronto, where the Cavs had been 0-4 this season.
After the Cavs had won the Eastern Conference championship, Irving got emotional in an interview with Allie Clifton of Fox Sports Ohio, then again in the interview room when he thought about coming out with 3:07 to play — only one second off the exact time on the clock — and hugging his way down the bench. It was different from 2015, when he was wearing a brace because of tendinitis in his left knee even before his left kneecap was broken in a freak collision.
“Thinking about the steps it took to get back to where we are now, I really have a true appreciation for these guys and a true appreciation of the journey,” Irving said.
During those interviews, Irving may have also remembered the rehab, the pain and the patience required to get back to the Finals.
“I just had to mature really quick,” he said before the game. “Coming back it was a little slow. Had to be patient, be very resilient in my attack. My preparation had to be very calculated. You had to be very careful. Any extra work that I could have done, I did. I continue to do it now. That will never change.
“At first, the initial part, you have to get past yourself, not feeling sorry for yourself because no one else will. Just willing yourself to get back to where you were. It’s definitely one of the things that you want to think about and remembering it’s what shapes players, going through a journey like that. To see where we are now as a team and me as a player, it’s really important.”
If Irving crawls back into his bubble, his teammates won’t try to coax him out, even if it’s during a game. Irving spoke during the conference finals about the lack of communication in the Cavs’ two losses. But 12-year veteran James Jones, making his sixth consecutive Finals appearance alongside James, sees a positive in Irving’s personality.
“If you look at most of the great players, they usually border on extremes,” Jones said. “It’s rare that you have the really, really outstanding players that are like middle of the road. They’re usually very demonstrative, very outgoing floor general types or they’re very reserved, thoughtful introverts where you just follow their lead.
“When those guys are calm, you’re calm. When those guys are a little off, the team tends to reflect their mood and attitude. He’s one of those quiet types, but you know if he’s quiet on the outside that things are raging on the inside.”
Memories and emotions might be raging on the inside when Irving steps onto the court for Game 1 of the Finals. But if he’s thinking about the past year, he won’t be cherishing something he proved to himself.
“Winning a championship will suffice,” he said.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.