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 postseason 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 player who carried Cleveland in Game 5 with 38 points, 12 rebounds, six assists, three steals and three blocks. He made seven of 23 shots and missed all four of his three-point attempts. But the Cavaliers had more than enough to get by, setting up a meeting with Atlanta or Washington.
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."