AP Sports Writer
INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) - Kyrie Irving finished an animated post-practice shooting game of "Around The World" with LeBron James and then quickly removed any doubt about his playing status for Game 1.
"I'm going to go," he said.
Cleveland's All-Star guard may not be 100 percent - or anywhere close - but he's much better and that's welcome news to the Cavs, who will open the Eastern Conference finals on Wednesday in Atlanta.
Irving has been bothered by a sore right foot since Game 2 of the opening round against Boston, and he sat out the final half of the Cavs' series-clinching win over Chicago last week with tendinitis in his left knee. But a weekend of rest and rehab allowed Irving to make it through a full practice on Monday, lifting his spirts and improving the Cavs' chances against the East's top seed.
Irving said he has come a long way from the way he felt Thursday night while sitting on the bench in United Center.
"Just being able to actually feel both my feet underneath me, especially when I'm shooting, it feels amazing," said Irving, who was limited to 12 minutes in Game 6. "I don't want to be on the sideline at all, especially preparing for a big stage like this."
Irving's improved health seemed to have an immediate impact with James, who ran around like a little kid after all of his teammates left the practice floor.
"I can't leave. You just gotta let me go," James yelled to good friend, Damon Jones, his former teammate who works with him on his shooting. "I'm locked in."
James knocked down 8 of 10 shots from 40 feet and threw down several jaw-dropping dunks before meeting with reporters in good spirits.
"He feels better," James said. "Obviously the days have helped him. You know, we really don't know until we get out there on Wednesday. The good thing is he's positive, he's feeling better, and that's positive for our team."
Irving's injuries threatened to derail the Cavs before they even took the floor against the Hawks, a balanced squad with quick guards and numerous offensive weapons. The Cavs are already without forward Kevin Love (shoulder surgery) and can't afford to be without another of top player.
Still, there's no way of knowing how effective Irving will be until he's on the court trying to drive past Hawks forward Paul Millsap or guarding fellow All-Star Jeff Teague or his backup, Dennis Schroder.
"Both can break you down on the dribble," Cavs coach David Blatt said. "Both can push the ball. Both can get to the rim and create for not only themselves, but for others. They are a handful. Two excellent guards who can play together. That presents another whole set of problems."
Blatt got a little defensive when pushed about Irving's status.
"Look, today is Monday," he said. "I told you a few days ago that I expect he'll play. It's just good to see that he's making some progress. He's not there 100 percent yet, but he's making progress and that's a very good sign. I'm hopeful."
As he matched shots with James following practice, Irving didn't try any dunks but he did attempt a couple layups, cautiously jumping off his right leg.
Afterward, Irving was upbeat and optimistic as he spoke about the opportunity threatened by pain in his knee and foot. These are his first playoffs, and he doesn't want to be a spectator for another second.
"This is the biggest stage that you want to be part of," Irving said. "Obviously people strive in the regular season to get to the playoffs and now I see absolutely why. There's nothing like the playoffs. Nothing at all."
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