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On this day in NBA Finals history: Kyrie Irving fractures his kneecap in 2015

The injury in Game 1 left LeBron James and Matt Dellavedova to lead the Cavs against the Warriors

Did the Cleveland Cavaliers really have a fair shake at winning the 2015 NBA Finals? That’s long been the question.

Heading into the series against the Golden State Warriors, Cleveland was already missing one piece of its “Big Three,” after power forward Kevin Love dislocated his left shoulder in the team’s first-round series against the Boston Celtics. The injury forced Love to miss the rest of the 2015 playoffs, leaving the Cavs without a key rebounding and perimeter shooting threat in the Finals.

Then on June 4, 2015, the unthinkable happened in Game 1 of the Finals. The Cavs lost another star to injury — and this time it was their floor general. With about two minutes remaining in overtime, Irving drove to his right, but couldn’t make it past the elbow as he tried to make a hard cut back to his left. Defended by Golden State’s Klay Thompson, Irving fell to the hardwood with little to no contact before kicking the ball out to shooting guard J.R. Smith at the 3-point line and immediately clutching his left knee in pain. He rose from the floor under his own power and hobbled back down the court to play defense. But the then-23-year-old point guard’s night was over, and so was his first career Finals appearance.

An MRI revealed that Irving fractured his left kneecap on the play, and would have to undergo season-ending surgery. Following the news of his Finals exit, Irving took to Instagram to deliver to his team, and one player in particular, some words of encouragement.

“I want to thank everyone for the well wishes. Saddened by the way I had to go out but it doesn’t take away from being apart of a special playoff run with my brothers. Truly means a lot for all the support and love. I Gave it everything I had and have no regrets. I love this game no matter what and I’ll be back soon. To my brothers: You already know what the deal is. And to Delly: “ICE it down del” *Big Perk voice*,” he wrote, with a shout-out to Matthew Dellavedova, the undrafted Australian point guard who would take Irving’s place in the backcourt for the rest of the series.

Dellavedova’s tenacious defense on then-league MVP Stephen Curry (who missed an NBA-record 13 3-point attempts in Game 2) gave Cleveland life in the next five games. However, the story of the Finals after Irving’s injury was simply LeBron James. Without his star point guard and power forward, James took it upon himself to put Cleveland on his back.

“I understand the moment that I’m in, and I’m not too much worried about the game. I’m worried about the moment. I’m happy with the moment,” James said following Game 1. “I’m excited to be in this moment once again, and I’m going to stay strong for my team, no matter who is or is not in the lineup.”

In six games, James averaged 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists, becoming the first player in NBA Finals history to lead both teams in points, rebounds and assists for the entire series. But, in the end, James needed help. His heroics weren’t enough to win the series, nor the Finals MVP award.

Despite taking a 2-1 series lead after their 108-100 overtime loss in Game 1, the Cavs dropped the final three games, with the Warriors closing out in a 105-97 victory in Game 6 to win the franchise its first title in 40 years. Andre Iguodala, who was inserted into Golden State’s starting lineup in Game 4, was named Finals MVP as the first player in history to win the award without starting every game in the series.

With Cavs-Warriors III now in full swing, it’s hard to look back at the first Finals matchup between the teams and not wonder whether Cleveland would’ve won had Irving not gotten hurt — especially with the way James was playing (he had 44 points with Irving on the floor for most of Game 1). Who knows, if the Cavs had a healthy point guard in the 2015 Finals, maybe they’d be going after their third straight title right now, and the everlasting discussion of James’ legacy would be shaped differently. The thought of Irving’s injury will always be in the back of our minds as perhaps one of the biggest what ifs in Finals history.

Aaron Dodson is an associate editor at The Undefeated. Often mistaken for Aaron Dobson, formerly of the New England Patriots and Arizona Cardinals, he was one letter away from being an NFL wide receiver.