LeBron James Jr. held court in the Cavaliers locker room, joking with players while sitting in front of his father’s locker.
Just down the hall, No. 23 himself was behind a podium praising his teammates’ energy and effort in their playoff opener.
Neither seemed willing to admit just how close Cleveland came to disaster Saturday afternoon.
C.J. Miles missed a wide-open shot from the left wing as time expired, allowing the Cavaliers to escape with a 109-108 victory over the Indiana Pacers in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference first-round series.
It was hardly the performance that the defending NBA champions needed to snap out of their six-week funk, but that mattered little to anyone wearing the wine and gold.
“No matter what happened, we came out with the win,” the elder James said. “I’m happy with how emotional we were. I’m happy with the effort. We’ve got to get better the next game, but it’s a great start for us.”
It was a great start for James, who poured in 32 points, dished out 13 assists and made three steals in the 200th playoff game of his unparalleled career. He also moved into fifth place in NBA history with 1,977 postseason field goals.
Channing Frye also was strong for Cleveland with 11 points off the bench, but All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love essentially disappeared in the fourth quarter as Indiana erased a 12-point deficit.
When Jeff Teague nailed a 3-pointer to put the Pacers ahead 105-103 with 3:31 left, a palpable sense of fear emanated from the stands.
And when Miles left Richard Jefferson in the dust to attempt his potential winning shot, the 20,562 fans gasped in horror.
That sequence of events should have shaken the Cavaliers to their core, but their denial skills remain at an elite level.
“I think we played well enough to win this basketball game,” said Irving, who went 11-of-27 from the field and was 1-of-9 beyond the arc.
How lucky was Cleveland to hold off Indiana? The two biggest defensive plays at crunch time were made by Irving, whose skills at that end of the court are subpar, putting it charitably.
Irving rejected Teague in the lane to preserve a 107-105 lead, then stripped the ball from Myles Turner with the Cavaliers up 109-105. That should have provided Cleveland with enough breathing room, but a poor pass by J.R. Smith and an even worse shot by James left the game hanging in the balance.
Thanks to Miles’ miss, the Pacers wound up the definition of “missed opportunity.”
“We’re a confident group, we can beat them,” Teague said softly. “We know that because we stayed calm and had a chance to win, but something (good) has to happen at the end of the game.”
Miles took the loss harder than anyone, spending a full half-hour in his uniform before showering. While he was cleaning up, All-Star forward Paul George was throwing him under the bus at a news conference, saying, “In that situation, I need the ball.”
Indiana needed a late-season surge to make the postseason, while the Cavaliers are seeking their third straight trip to the NBA Finals.
At this point, though, it’s questionable which team is mentally stronger — and that doesn’t bode well for Cleveland’s chances of putting away Indiana in a short series.
“We can play better and we will play better,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said. “I addressed it after the game. Hat’s off to (Indiana). They played well, but we’ll be better in the next game.”
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