Two words signaled the end of Cleveland's stay in limbo and the true start of its Eastern Conference title defense: I'm back.
That was the message tweeted by Kyrie Irving, who will play for the first time in 6 1/2 months Sunday when the Cavaliers host the lowly Philadelphia 76ers.
The All-Star point guard has been out of action since breaking his left kneecap in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on June 4. Although the Cavs opened 17-7 without him, questions linger about their readiness to compete for another championship.
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Even with Iman Shumpert (groin) questionable and Mo Williams (thumb) out Sunday, Cleveland is finally getting a closer look at its ideal roster.
“You wouldn't wish injury on anybody, just going through those months, just being a prisoner of your own emotions and thoughts, that's the hardest thing,” Irving said following Saturday's practice. “I'll probably go home and let all my emotions out, but I'm pretty excited to be back out there with my brothers.”
They're thrilled to have him. Williams and Matthew Dellavedova have handled most of the point guard duties, but the club's scoring average has dipped only slightly from 103.1 a season ago to 101.6. The Cavs, though, have averaged 96.8 in their last nine games.
More importantly, they get a player who can take over a game, providing some relief for LeBron James. Irving scored 30 or more points 10 times last season, including career highs of 57 and 55. He averaged 21.7 and had five games with 10-plus assists.
The Cavs have been cautious with Irving, who was expected back earlier this week, and are not going to force the issue just yet.
“We're going to be real conscious of the number of minutes and the number of minutes that he plays at one time,” coach David Blatt said. “I'm not going to give you a number, but certainly it's something that's in our mind.”
Irving joins a team rolling with four straight wins after Thursday's 104-100 victory over Oklahoma City improved them to 11-1 at Quicken Loans Arena. Cleveland hosts New York on Wednesday before opening a four-game trip Friday with a Finals rematch at Golden State.
The Cavs have won four in a row against the 76ers (1-27), including the first two this season – 107-100 at Philadelphia on Nov. 2 and 108-102 four days later at home. James has averaged 26.5 points, 12.0 assists and 6.5 rebounds in those games and fell one board shy of a triple-double in the first matchup.
Irving could be the next guard to give Philadelphia trouble. Coach Brett Brown ripped his team's perimeter defense after Carmelo Anthony, Arron Afflalo and Derrick Williams combined for 55 points in Friday's 107-97 loss to New York.
“It's been non-existent lately,” said Brown. “We're just getting manhandled with adult NBA wings. We're really struggling to guard on the perimeter.”
Irving's return is a bad break in a season full of them for the 76ers, who are on track for the worst season in NBA history thanks to an 18-game skid at the start and a current nine-game drought that mark the two longest in the league this season.
Friday's loss wasn't as close as the final score indicated. Philadelphia trailed by as many as 30 before cutting into the deficit in the final quarter against New York's bench.
Jahlil Okafor scored 20 points on 9-of-17 shooting. The rookie, who has averaged 21.3 points while shooting 50 percent in his last six games, totaled 42 points in the first two meetings with the Cavs.
Philadelphia is the NBA's only remaining winless team away from home at 0-16.