Somehow, the Cleveland Cavaliers still found a way to advance to the Eastern Conference finals.
James struggled to score 15 points, Irving limped off the court and the Cavaliers still beat the Chicago Bulls 94-73 on Thursday night to clinch their semifinal series in six games.
Matthew Dellavedova scored 19 points and Tristan Thompson added 13 points and 17 rebounds to help the Cavaliers advance to the conference finals for the first time since 2009 even though their superstar played like a mere mortal and their All-Star point guard hobbled to the locker room in the first half.
Despite all that, Cleveland is right where it expected to be after James decided to come home from Miami and return to his first team. The Cavaliers didn't expect to get there like this, though — with Kevin Love suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in the opening round and Irving trying to gut through problems with both legs.
"These guys work their tails off every single day when you guys are not around," James said. "Yes, I'm a little bit surprised because of how we've handled the post-season so far. These are first-timers right here (Dellavedova and Thompson) as well as Kyrie and Kev before the injury. They want to be good, they want to be great, and every single day they prepare the right way."
Irving scored six points in 12 minutes before twisting his left knee when he came down on Thompson's foot early in the second quarter. The score was 35-35 and he did not return.
James had 11 assists and nine rebounds but hardly looked like the superhuman that carried Cleveland in Game 5 with 38 points, 12 rebounds, six assists, three steals and three blocks. He shot 7 of 23 from the field and missed all four 3-point attempts in this game. But the Cavaliers had more than enough to get by, setting up a meeting with Atlanta or Washington.
It is James' fifth straight conference finals, the previous four with Miami. Getting there sure hasn't been easy with all the injuries.
"I do everything for my team, do everything for my teammates," James said. "I want these guys to be able to feel this moment. That's what I came back here for. I've got four guys that never made the post-season that played a huge role on this team."
Jimmy Butler led Chicago with 20 points and Derrick Rose finished with 14. Pau Gasol scored all of his eight points in the first quarter after missing the previous two games with a strained left hamstring, and the Bulls simply got overmatched in what could be their final game under coach Tom Thibodeau.
There is heavy speculation that he could be out because of friction with management despite leading Chicago to a 255-139 record and playoff appearances in each of his five seasons.
"I love him as a coach," Rose said.
And Thibodeau said he expects to be back unless he's told otherwise.
"Yeah. Until they tell me I'm not, I expect to be here," he said. "That's the way I'm going to approach it."
Iman Shumpert scored 13 points for Cleveland. Dellavedova, James Jones and J.R. Smith (12 points) all hit three 3-pointers and combined to score 40 points.
Even with Irving missing most of the second quarter and James scoring just six points on 3-of-11 shooting, the Cavaliers led 58-44 at halftime and maintained control the rest of the way.
Things were not looking good for Cleveland when Irving landed on Thompson's foot and hit the court grimacing in pain with 9:47 left in the half. He limped to the sideline and headed to the locker room.
"He's sore and bowed but not broken. He'll be OK," coach David Blatt said.
After Irving went down, James tweaked his back.
Even so, the Cavaliers went on a 20-2 run to go up 58-42 before Butler scored on a layup in the closing seconds of the half.
Shumpert had nine points during that stretch and let Nikola Mirotic hear about it when he nailed a 3 after getting clotheslined by the Bulls forward less than a minute earlier.
HE SAID IT
F Mike Dunleavy Jr. when asked at the shootaround about the Bulls' pulse: "We got a good pulse. We're alive, eating well."
Cavaliers: Irving acknowledged the time he is spending treating his injuries is taking away from his preparation on the court "a little bit." He said he will not need surgery and that the medical team told him the only cure is rest. "That's the only thing that will help me right now," he said.
Bulls: C Joakim Noah won the J. Walter Kennedy Award, given annually to an NBA player, coach or trainer for community service. The two-time All-Star was selected by the Pro Basketball Writers Association for his work with youth. His Noah's Arc Foundation recently launched the "Rock Your Drop: The Drop of Consciousness" anti-violence initiative, supporting those impacted by violence and encouraging youngsters to express themselves through sports and art.