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Reasonable Doubt: How will Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love respond?

Irving and Love’s bounce-back game is tested for the first time in the playoffs

It’s been said a Jay Z lyric exists for any situation in life. So when Cleveland Cavalier forward LeBron James quoted Jay’s renowned “If I shoot you, I’m brainless/ But if you shoot me you’re famous” bars from 1997’s Streets Is Watching in response to questions about some of the hard fouls he’s absorbed in the series, the connection made sense.

Jay and James have been down since the latter’s high-school days (Jay even once made a DeShawn Stevenson diss track in defense of James back when the Washington Wizards were conference rivals of the young superstar). The Toronto Raptors are clearly going to attempt to frustrate James — putting him in situations that will test his restraint — because, well, do they have another option?

It was probably the perfect Jay Z quote to use and one of the few things Cleveland executed perfectly the night of its Game 3 loss in Toronto on Saturday.

James, however, might also be thinking of another lyric from his big homie. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love played the worst games of their still-young playoff careers, shooting a combined 4-for-28 from the floor. Love only mustered three points and Irving went to the locker room after getting the wind knocked out of him by Cory Joseph, a microcosm of the entire evening north of the border.

It would have been poetic if James walked out of the Air Canada Centre on Saturday night with Feelin’ It blaring through his headphones.

“If every n—— in your clique is rich, your clique is rugged,” Jay rapped on the Reasonable Doubt classic. “Nobody will fall, ’cause everyone will be each other’s crutches.”

“Rich,” in this Cavaliers’ analogy, isn’t referring to money — especially with Irving or Love. The Cavs boast the largest payroll in the league and a King Kong-sized luxury tax that probably has owner Dan Gilbert chain-smoking cigarettes at the thought of footing the bill and potentially not winning a title.

Rather, we’re talking “rich” in the sense of being locked all the way in, and playing with a sense of urgency. “Rich” in character, if you will, where pressure that normally busts pipes will create diamonds.

“I think it’s good for them,” James said. “First little adversity — first individually — in a long time, and I think it’s good for them. I think they’ll be much better, obviously, on Monday; but it’s good for them.”

James has been through similar situations during his postseason career. In 2012, the Miami Heat were down 2-1 to a scrappy Indiana Pacers team led by the duo of Danny Granger and Paul George. The Pacers, at home, blew out the Heat in Game 3. Dwyane Wade shot 2-for-13 for five points and five turnovers and one acrimonious exchange with head coach Erik Spoelstra. Already missing Chris Bosh, who suffered an abdominal injury earlier in the series, talk of the Heat’s demise became the sexy topic to discuss during the three-day gap between games.

What happened in Game 4? Wade exploded for 30 points, nine rebounds and six assists on a night in which James notched the greatest near triple-double of his career with 40 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists. Miami won the next two games, as well, capped off by a 41-point, 10-rebound performance from Wade in the decisive Game 6. Miami would win the title that year, by the way.

The circumstances for Irving, Love and Cleveland aren’t nearly as bleak as they were for Wade and Miami four years ago. But there is a sobering reality for the Cavs’ two younger stars. Much has been made about Toronto not having a puncher’s chance in the series or Kyle Lowry’s “decompress” debacle, but Monday night is a pivotal juncture for Irving and Love, the Pepsi pitchmen known as Uncle Drew and Wes. Toronto is the second seed in the Eastern Conference, not the Washington Generals. The Raptors have two All-Stars on the roster, technically one more than Cleveland this year. They’re not going to throw dirt on their own casket. And with a chance to completely alter the narrative of the series, it’s a must that Irving and Love embrace the adversity James mentioned as a welcome challenge.

A wise man once said, “You either get down or lay down.” The choice is all theirs.

Irving’s and Love’s bounce-back game is under the microscope, now.

How does Irving — a student of of the “Kobe Bryant School of Confidence” — respond as the point guard under the spotlight?

Will Love — in his first real playoff run, meeting his first real postseason on-court gut check, admitting to playing passive — help ensure the Cavs hop on the plane Monday night heading back to Cleveland up 3-1 and not ignite a citywide panic if they come back with the series tied 2-2?

Kyrie Irving #2 and Kevin Love #0 of the Cleveland Cavaliers react in the final seconds of their 121-108 win over the Atlanta Hawks in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Semifinals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Philips Arena on May 6, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia.

Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images Kyrie Irving, left, and Kevin Love of the Cleveland Cavaliers react in the final seconds of their 121-108 win over the Atlanta Hawks in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals during the 2016 NBA playoffs at Philips Arena on May 6 in Atlanta.

Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

In a series like this — in games like this, in moments like this — the game’s great players and teams recognize the task at hand. Shooting the Atlanta Hawks into oblivion and making quick work of the Detroit Pistons was all fun and games. And just days ago, the debate raged on whether these current Cavs are James’ best teammates ever. Now the Cavs, in particular Irving and Love, get to present their case to the court of public opinion in an arena that will be absolutely lit tonight, with Toronto’s “global ambassador Drake guaranteed to be courtside.

James Jones, pretty much the Cavs’ version of Yoda at this point, had a brilliant observation.

“Growth usually happens after pain,” he said.

The Cavs got to 10 wins quicker than anyone in the playoffs. This includes the Golden State Warriors or Oklahoma City Thunder. But until Cleveland becomes the first to 16 wins, a black cloud of Reasonable Doubt will always haunt the city with more than its fair share of sports demons. (The brunt of this responsibility falls on James, who perhaps means more to his city and state than any athlete in history.)

Irving and Love have dealt with their fair share of physical and emotional pain in competition. Monday night is a chance to show the growth that Jones spoke of. Doing so would put Cleveland on the brink of its second consecutive Finals berth. So, yeah, no pressure.

No pressure at all.

Justin Tinsley is a senior culture writer for Andscape. He firmly believes “Cash Money Records takin’ ova for da ’99 and da 2000” is the single most impactful statement of his generation.