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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) — As the crowd's roar softened after the Cavaliers fended off Chicago's last, late charge, LeBron James smiled and mocked Kyrie Irving's slow, pained walk.
"Get your limping (butt) over here," James said before wrapping his arms around his gifted, gimpy younger teammate.
Irving — an All-Star who enticed James to return home to Cleveland — had willed himself through the pain of a sprained right foot and a sore left knee in Game 5 to get the Cavaliers within one win of the Eastern Conference finals.
He'll have to do it again as the Cavs try to close out a semifinal that has featured an undercurrent of bad blood, back-to-back buzzer-beating finishes and a historic performance by James.
Irving said the torment has been not being able to play at 100 percent at such a crucial time.
"This has been the biggest mental challenge of my career thus far," he said. "It's just because I want it more and I want to be that guy for my teammates, as well as LeBron."
Irving said he had to come to grips with not being physically sound in Games 3 and 4, where he felt he struggled as little more than a "decoy." His legs ached and he felt as old as the gray-bearded, "Uncle Drew" character he popularized in TV commercials. That changed drastically Tuesday night as he scored 25 points — 15 in the second half — and Cleveland took a 3-2 series lead.
Irving said the improvement was about preparing well, getting treatment and putting himself in a strong mental space to play. The Cavaliers, already forced to adjust with forward Kevin Love out for the postseason, can't afford to be down another vital piece.
"Obviously, I'm really confident still in myself, but I just want to go out there and play for my brothers," he said. "That's all that matters at this point."
From the start in Game 5, Irving was more like himself, more like the dazzling player who can lull a defender into a false sense of security before spinning his head with a move and then somehow coaxing in a bank shot from an impossible angle.
The Cavs didn't know what to expect from Irving, who has developed an injury-prone reputation because of a history of medical setbacks dating to his one year at Duke, where he only played 11 games because of a foot injury. He has yet to make it through a full NBA season.
But with his mind eased after an MRI revealed only tendinitis and no structural damage in his knee, Irving, who under normal circumstances would sit out, looked closer to the player who has come of age with James' help, finding lanes to the rim for layups and getting to the right spots to knock down open jumpers.
He finished 9 of 16 and added five assists to complement James, who scored 38 with 12 rebounds, 6 assists, three steals, three blocks and zero turnovers — a playoff line not seen since the league began taking detailed stats in 1977.
Coach David Blatt said Irving's performance definitely jumped up in Game 5.
"Still, you can see that at times he's fighting through pain and he's not moving as well as he normally does," he said. "But it was encouraging that he had more lift and it just it seemed like a little bit more strength and power particularly on his drives and on his jumper."
"I don't think we're going to see a jump up suddenly to 100 percent, but incrementally every day that he gets a little bit better is a great sign for him and for us."
Irving was "sore" on Wednesday and undergoing more treatment before the Cavs head to Chicago for Game 6 on Thursday, Blatt said.
"When you see a guy that plays through pain and still gives you everything he has and fights through the frustration of not being able to do everything that he normally does, particularly at this very important time, but nonetheless lays it out there and shows no give, it's just something you really appreciate as a player, as a teammate and as a human being," Blatt said.
"The guy is overcoming and pushing through and that's great to see," he said.
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