INDEPENDENCE, Ohio — Nothing provides a jolt of good news like hearing your best player is returning from injury.
And learning Kyrie Irving is indeed back was exactly what the doctor ordered. Not just for Irving’s healed-enough broken left index finger, but for the Cavaliers as well.
Irving practiced Monday and has received clearance to play. It couldn’t have come at a better time, because the celebrated (although somewhat disjointed) Los Angeles Lakers are in town Tuesday for their lone Cleveland stop of the season.
With Irving, that game becomes especially cool.
Irving is, after all, the reigning NBA Rookie of the Year, as well as the Cavs’ leading scorer (22.9 ppg) and assist man (5.6 apg). He also plays an exciting brand of basketball, offering a little flash to go with his overall effectiveness.
For the past three weeks, Irving has been putting up shots while focusing mostly on conditioning.
“(Cavs coaches and trainers) were killing me,” he said, smiling. “I definitely stayed in shape. I needed it. A whole lot of running.”
He went through full-contact drills at the Cavs’ practice facility Monday, including his usual dose of physical one-on-one play against assistant coach Nate Tibbetts.
Irving didn’t seem the least bit bothered by any of it. In one sequence, he caught a pass with Tibbetts’ forearm shoving his back, then calmly turned, faced the basket and swished a 12-foot fadeaway.
“It feels great to finally be out there with my teammates,” Irving said. “I missed a lot of games. … Now it’s time to beat on some other teams.”
The 6-foot-3 point guard sat out 11 games. The Cavs (4-17) were 2-8 with him, but victories seemed even less likely in going 2-9 without.
He was initially projected to miss four weeks, but instead missed three.
“That was probably the best news I got all day,” Cavs coach Byron Scott said of Irving’s return. “I was excited to see he’s way ahead of schedule. It’s really good to have him back. He might be in better shape now than he was when (healthy).”
Irving suffered the injury in a loss to Dallas on Nov. 17. He played the next night in a loss at Philadelphia, scoring a season-low nine points. An MRI revealed the extent of the injury the following day.
He received follow-up MRIs in the following weeks and has been sporting a splint at practice.
“I’m good,” he said Monday. “I have a splint on it for precautionary reasons. I got used to playing with it.”
Scott refused to say if Irving will start Tuesday, but it seems likely. Either way, Irving is back, and it’s the type of news the Cavs sure could use.
• Rookie guard Dion Waiters is not expected to play against the Lakers. Waiters has missed the previous four games (all losses) with a sprained left ankle. Scott revealed Monday that Waiters also has a bone bruise in the ankle. “He’s a little ways away,” Scott said.
• Waiters is second on the team in scoring at 15.2 points — including 20.5 points in the Cavs’ four wins. On the bright side, he’s no longer walking with a limp and jogged lightly alongside trainers at the end of practice.
• The Lakers are expected to again be without point guard Steve Nash (leg). Starting forward Pau Gasol (knee tendinitis) has also been out and is considered a game-time decision.
• Former Cavs forward Antawn Jamison started in place of Gasol in Sunday’s loss vs. Utah. Jamison, 36, is averaging a career-low 8.0 points with the Lakers. He played in all but one game with the Cavs last season and averaged 17.2 points.
• Despite the high expectations, the Lakers are struggling to pull it together, having lost four of their last five. “It’s a little but of a surprise, but with that many talented players together, it’s gonna take some time,” Irving said. “Obviously, they have the talent to compete for a championship. They’re just figuring things out right now, as we are.”