Pacers crumbling after yet another loss

At his first opportunity, Kyrie Irving lowered his shoulder and dribbled hard toward the basket, unafraid of injury or other consequences.

When he neared the rim, the Cavaliers guard laid in his first basket in more than a week.

The concussion was behind him. The rookie was back.

Irving scored 22 points in his return after missing three games with a concussion, leading Cleveland to a 98-87 win Wednesday night over the reeling Indiana Pacers, who dropped their fifth straight and played without leading scorer Danny Granger.

On the floor for the first time since Feb. 7, when he accidentally banged his head into the knee of Miami’s Dwyane Wade, Irving picked up right where he left off before getting hurt.

”Kyrie didn’t look like he missed a beat,” said Cavs coach Byron Scott, who played his young star 37 minutes. ”He didn’t look like he missed (seven) days. He looked fresh and rejuvenated.”

Scott wasn’t shocked Irving would announce his return with an assertive move.

”We’ve all known since Day 1 he has no fear,” Scott said. ”It wasn’t a surprise to me that his first shot was going to be an aggressive one. It was good to see him back out there on the floor playing the way he’s capable of playing.”

The 19-year-old was only cleared to play in the morning by Cavs doctors, who had to follow the NBA’s new guidelines on head injuries during his recovery.

While others may have viewed his first basket as a message, Irving said there was no hidden intent other than to score two points.

”I’m 100 percent,” he said. ”Just because I had a concussion, it doesn’t mean my game is going to change in any way. I’ll play with the same aggressiveness. I’ve gone through the season attacking the basket.”

Irving made the Cavs more complete, but they’re still without center Anderson Varejao, who is sidelined indefinitely with a broken wrist. Semih Erden started for Varejao and scored a career-high 18 points.

Darren Collison scored 18 and Roy Hibbert 17 for Indiana, which was without Granger, who sprained his left ankle during Tuesday night’s loss to Miami. Dahntay Jones had only three points as Granger’s replacement, and none of the other Pacers picked up the slack.

Indiana is 2-6 in its last eight — seven of them against teams with winning records.

”It’s not an excuse, but I think guys are worn down,” coach Frank Vogel said. ”It’s been a tough stretch of the schedule against a string of good teams and we’ve had a slew of injuries. It’s just something that will come back around.”

Irving said he felt fully recovered and was excited to be back on the floor.

And it showed.

The young star went 5 of 6 and scored 12 points in the first quarter, when he added two assists and two rebounds while helping the Cavs jump to an early double-digit lead. Irving’s legs were lively from the week off, and as much as it pained him to have to sit out, the No. 1 overall draft pick believes the rest helped.

Irving didn’t score in the second quarter, but he added eight points in the third — making a pair of three-pointers — to help the Cavs, who led by 12 after one and 18 at halftime, keep the Pacers at bay.

Cleveland took an 18-point lead into the fourth, but with Irving on the bench the Cavs became disjointed on offense and didn’t score for the first 5:07 of the quarter.

Ramon Sessions finally ended the drought with a three-point play to make it 82-67 with 6:53 left, and Indiana only got as close as nine points in the final minute.

Scott had been hoping one of Cleveland’s big men would step up with Varejao out, and the 7-foot Erden came through. He won’t be able to duplicate Varejao’s boundless energy, but Erden added eight rebounds and did a solid defensive job inside on Hibbert.

”He was more aggressive on both ends of the floor,” Scott said. ”I thought he was a little more comfortable.”

It didn’t all go as planned for the Cavs.

Guard Daniel Gibson injured his left ankle in the third quarter, when he came down on Indiana guard Paul George’s foot. Gibson stayed down on the floor for several minutes in obvious pain before he was helped up and limped to the locker room. Gibson didn’t return and it may be a few days before he’s back.

”It’s frustrating,” Gibson said. ”It hurts badly. I’ve had this before. Hopefully I can heal quicker from it.”

There’s no telling when the Pacers will recover.

One of the NBA’s surprise teams to start the season, Indiana, in the middle of a three-games-in-three-nights stretch, has hit its first extended slump.

”Good teams don’t lose this many games in a row,” David West said. ”Right now, we can’t call ourselves that. We’re not playing good enough to be a good team. We just don’t have enough resistance. We’re letting teams dictate what they want to do offensively. I don’t know if we’re hoping teams come out and play bad.

”We’re going to have to dig deep and find a way to get out of this.”

Granger, who sprained his ankle in the final seconds of the first quarter Tuesday against Miami, warmed up on the floor before the game but was obviously uncomfortable. He winced several times while trying to make cuts. However, the Pacers’ medical staff was encouraged by his progress and it’s possible he’ll play Thursday against New Jersey.

NOTES: As if being clobbered by the Heat wasn’t bad enough, the Pacers arrived at their Cleveland hotel to find Miami’s team was also staying at the Ritz-Carlton. Vogel joked they deserved it. ”Take that,” he said. ”You don’t play well, you’ve got to stay with those guys.” LeBron James and Co. play the Cavs on Friday. …Cleveland snapped its six-game losing streak to Indiana. … The Cavs have yet to provide a timetable on Varejao’s return. He sat on the bench with a brace on his wrist.