cavs13_01CLEVELAND: At some point after Kyrie Irving’s shaky performance in Saturday’s loss at the Chicago Bulls, Irving texted LeBron James with a simple message: “I have to be better.”

If there is one player who might determine the Cavaliers’ playoff fate, it very well could be Irving.

The Cavs will play the Detroit Pistons in a first-round playoff series beginning Saturday or Sunday.

James has elevated his game to another stratosphere and is reasserting a late claim to retain the title of best player in the game, but he can’t win alone. He proved that last year, although he came awfully close.

Irving has been fighting for months with mixed results to get back to being the player he once was.

It has been a difficult season for him personally and professionally, from becoming a father to his very public split from an ex-girlfriend and his rehab from serious knee surgery. Through it all, Irving still hasn’t quite returned to the player he once was. He has produced some of the lowest averages since his rookie season, and his already sub-par defense has regressed.

“I’m not even trying to be the person I was from last year,” Irving said. “It’s been a different dynamic for me this year just finding that balance, realizing that at one point I didn’t walk for almost seven months. Then I come into the season and try to get a rhythm with everybody.

“I’ve never had a season like this, ever.”

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Irving delivered the type of fourth-quarter performance Monday the Cavs are going to need time and again between now and June. He scored 13 of his 35 points in the fourth quarter on a night the Cavs flexed their muscle for the rest of the NBA to see. They won’t finish with a historic win total, but the Cavs still believe they have enough talent to win a championship. Irving and James are big reasons why, combining for 69 of the Cavs’ 109 points Monday and offering a glimpse at their combined potency to conclude what has been an inconsistent and sometimes frustrating season.

James ends his season averaging the same 25.3 points he averaged last season, but he took a far different path to get there. He didn’t need two weeks off in the middle of the season, his back wasn’t an issue and he has raved for weeks about how good he feels entering the postseason.

“It’s a mind switch,” James said before comparing himself to a golfer who is always tinkering with his swing. “I can understand sometimes when those guys change their swing sometimes, and they can maybe even change their golf clubs, they feel like just one little switch can get them to drive that ball 400 instead of 360. That’s the way I felt.”

He’s averaging 28.4 points, eight rebounds and 8.5 assists in his past 10 games. He’s shooting 63 percent overall and nearly 52 percent from 3-point range.

“There’s a clock that goes off in his body,” James Jones said. “It starts to wake up and round into form.”

James has played as well these last three weeks as he has during any stretch in any of his Most Valuable Player seasons. He won’t win it this year — Steph Curry should be a unanimous selection — but James is playing his best basketball at exactly the right time.

“Zero dark thirty. It’s about that time,” Tristan Thompson said, referring to what James calls his mindset during the postseason. “You see it every year. It’s about to go down. Let’s do it.”

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