Isiah Thomas knows all about Nets’ Kyrie Irving’s ‘pain’

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Isiah Thomas grabbed his right ankle while writhing in pain, just like Kyrie Irving did Sunday. This was Game 6 of the 1988 Finals, Pistons against the Lakers, and Thomas had stepped on a foot belonging to the Lakers’ Michael Cooper, and rolled that ankle in a way that every player from junior high through the pros could feel.

“I had been through every kind of injury,” Thomas told The Post on Monday, “and that was the most pain that I ever felt in my body as an athlete.”

As soon as the Pistons’ Hall of Famer saw Irving collapse in Game 4 after landing on Giannis Antetokounmpo’s foot, he flashed back to that night, and that seminal third-quarter moment, in the L.A. Forum. So did a million of us old enough to remember what unfolded next — probably the greatest performance on a badly sprained ankle in NBA history. Helped by trainer Mike Abdenour, Thomas hobbled back to the bench and returned to the game 35 seconds later.

Sometimes hopping on one leg, Thomas would score another 11 points in the third to finish with 25 points in the quarter. Twenty-five. He would end up with 43 in all, and miss his chance to close out the Lakers dynasty and win his first championship only because of a brutal endgame foul call on teammate Bill Laimbeer.

Two nights later, when rival Magic Johnson clinched his third title in four years, Thomas wasn’t even half the player he was in Game 6.

“I couldn’t make it through Game 7 without hurting my team,” said Thomas, who missed 8 of 12 shots and scored 10 points in 28 minutes. “My ankle kept getting so big that the swelling on the right side was damn near dragging on the court.”

Isiah Thomas after hurting his ankle in 1988.
Isiah Thomas after hurting his ankle in 1988.
NBAE via Getty Images

This was not meant as a warning to Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Nets in the event the star guard returns to this Eastern Conference semifinal against Milwaukee. Irving and Harden have been ruled out of Tuesday night’s Game 5, and now it’s anyone’s guess if either or both will be back for Game 6.

But more than anyone, Thomas knows how hard it is for a ball-dominant guard to thrive while trying to get by on a damaged wheel. Of course, times were different back then.

“The Lakers with Pat Riley and Magic, they wouldn’t even give us a bag of ice,” Thomas recalled. So at the invitation of Al Davis, he spent his rehab time at the Raiders’ training facility, day and night, befriending Howie Long and Marcus Allen as they tried to shepherd him back into the lineup.

Kyrie Irving injury Nets ankle Game 4
Kyrie Irving was ruled out for the rest of the Nets’ Game 4 with a right ankle sprain.
Getty Images

Thomas had risen above his injury in Game 6, he said, “because during that era, those are the things you were taught to overcome. A lot of us in that period risked career-ending injuries, but we played for the sublime. We played for that once-in-a-lifetime memory.

“My mom used to have a saying whenever we would get hurt or get beaten up as kids: ‘It’s only pain.’ But every time I’ve seen that replay of Kyrie rolling his ankle, bending it the way he did, I felt for him. You just go, ‘Damn.’ ”

After Brooklyn lost Game 4, after the Fiserv Forum alarms were set off around the Nets in every literal and figurative way, team owner Joe Tsai tweeted, “We will have the best rehab for @KyrieIrving.” He posted a hopeful follow-up that read, “Wouldn’t bet against @KyrieIrving #MambaMentality.”

But a dramatic Game 5 return was not to be, leaving Kevin Durant to say he’s “just got to be prepared to do everything out there, just like any night.” Only this won’t be like any night, not with Irving and Harden on the sideline. The same Bucks who were humiliated in Games 1 and 2 are expected to show up in Brooklyn a healthy and confident lot. And if Irving makes it back for Game 6 or 7, nobody has any idea how effective he might be.

“It could be very, very difficult,” Nash said. “Or it could be something that he shrugs off quickly.”

Thomas is hoping that Irving shrugs it off this week better than he did during his quick turnaround 33 years ago. The former Knicks president and coach, and current owner of Cheurlin Champagne, sees in Irving an old-soul artist who plays a game that most modern-day stars don’t play.

“Kyrie is an original who has created his own lane,” Thomas said. “He’s an outlier like I was, like Magic and Oscar [Robertson] were, guys who had their own style and then others come behind them and replicate it. Kyrie plays jazz with the basketball.”

He will not be performing at the Barclays on Tuesday night, and that’s a crying shame. As for his advice if and when Irving does return, Thomas said, “Just do the best you can with the one-and-a-half legs you’ve got. Whatever small contribution you can make to winning, make that small contribution.”

And hope the 2021 Brooklyn Nets can find a happier ending than the 1988 Detroit Pistons.

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