Playoffs 2017: East First Round -- Cavaliers (2) vs. Pacers (7)

A rocky first step for Cleveland Cavaliers in quest to repeat as champions

In playoff opener, erratic Cavaliers escape as Pacers' C.J. Miles misses jumper at buzzer

CLEVELAND – The playoffs are lovely, dark and deep. But the Cleveland Cavaliers have promises to keep. And miles to go before they sweep, and miles to go before they repeat.

Besides the apologies offered up here to Robert Frost, it should be noted the connection between the Cavaliers’ metaphoric miles and Indiana’s C.J. Miles is merely coincidental. Then again, nothing would have driven home the point more about Cleveland’s need to improve its play in an array of areas than if Miles’ jump shot from the left wing had dropped through the rim with one second left, rather than bounding off as time ran out at Quicken Loans Arena Saturday afternoon.

That slim margin, had it flipped Cleveland’s 109-108 victory into a one-point stunner at home in Game 1 of its first-round Eastern Conference series, would have brought 48 hours (at least) of drama, second-guessing and overwrought fretting about, “What’s wrong with the Cavs?” It’s a question that’s been in play for much of the past two months, one around which LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, coach Tyronn Lue and the rest of them tiptoed afterward.

“It’s a long journey. We understand that,” Irving said. “We don’t take any possession for granted. Tonight, was just a lot of mistakes on our end. A lot of 50/50 balls that should have been in our hands. Fewer rebounds kicked out of bounds. Those are things we can correct. We just have to take it game by game. We understand that. We have a veteran group.”

It’s a group largely intact from the team that dug itself into, and then out of, a 3-1 hole in last June’s Finals against Golden State. It’s also the group that went 11-15 after the trade deadline, an ordinary 25-24 since Jan. 2, and played defense in a manner befitting the dregs of the league.

The Cavaliers have been alternating between denial and introspection for weeks. ‘Fessing up in a given moment to how much better they need to be playing as the postseason competition gets dialed up, reassuring themselves if not others of their capacity to find and flip their playoff switch.

That duality was still in play Saturday. Cleveland surely was pleased with about shooting 54 percent against the Pacers, nearly 40 percent from 3-point range and the work its players put in at both ends during a 10-0 stretch in the third quarter that pushed its lead to a game-best 12 points.

Cleveland was not so pleased that it frittered away that lead, despite Indiana star Paul George making just one bucket in the fourth quarter. Or that it managed just 17 points in that final period. Or that it fell behind 105-103 with 3:31 left … at home … against the East’s No. 7 seed. The Cavs certainly had to flinch over Indiana’s 11-of-24 shooting from the arc, along with the nearly fatal 13 free throws they missed.

“I’m happy we got the victory,” James said after scoring 32 points and, with 13 assists, generating a bunch more – each one essential. “I’m happy how emotional we were. I’m happy with the energy and the effort.”

So much attention heading into this series had focused on the Cavaliers’ readiness – could they flip the switch? – that you might have thought they were as simple as a kitchen appliance. Plug in the refrigerator, it runs, done.

The reality is that an NBA team, especially a title-worthy one, is more like the cockpit of a jet airliner. Switches, buttons, dials and levers galore. So while the Cavs may have found the emotional pitch they needed, they toggled from good to bad defensively. Irving, Kevin Love and J.R. Smith shot a combined 4-of-18 on 3-pointers and Kyle Korver’s only field goal attempt was a two. Cleveland got outworked on the glass all game and out-hustled on the floor often enough that it stuck in Lue’s craw.

“Overall defensively, we were pretty good, just outside of the loose balls that they got,” Lue said. “Offensive rebounds, put-backs. The 50/50 balls we didn’t get to, they scored on. Y’know, just clean those things up, it’d be a different game. Eleven turnovers for 19 points and then missing 13 free throws wasn’t good for us. We found a way to win the game, but we’ll be better.”

Lots of athletes and teams can live and take refuge in a binary world – who won, who lost? – but a defending champion that strays so from its peak performance is bound to get judged on style points. If the Cavaliers admit their play isn’t where it needs to be, the teams hoping to unseat them – the Celtics, the Raptors, the Wizards and right now the Pacers – can’t help but gain confidence.

“It doesn’t mean that we believe it,” Irving said, a little defensively. “I’ve never said that. I’ve understand there are things that we can correct going forward. … I don’t know exactly what you’re trying to ask. I don’t know if I can answer it.”

Are the Cavaliers vulnerable?

“Oh, if we feel vulnerable? Oh no. No,” Cleveland’s point guard said. “Not going into any game, with the group that we have. I understand there are some mistakes that happen throughout the game. The regular season didn’t end the way we want it to. But like I said, this is a step in the right direction.”

And still it came down to a make-or-miss by Miles, once James and Smith forced the ball from George’s hands by double-teaming on the final possession. Imagine the wailing if that ball …

“I don’t know. There’s no way you can really answer that question,” James said, rejecting the hypothetical after running his streak of first-round victories to 18. “If I didn’t get the block [late in Game 7] last year in the Finals. If Kyrie didn’t make the three. If Steph [Curry] would have made the three. There’s so many … you can’t look at a game like that. He missed. We won.”

Miles to go, though. Miles to go.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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