CLEVELAND (92.3 The Fan) – That stiff breeze that blew through downtown Cleveland just after 5:35 Saturday afternoon happened to be a gigantic exhale that emanated from Quicken Loans Arena.
It came after former Cav C.J. Miles’ 14-foot jumper clanked off of the side of the rim as time expired to give the Cavs a 109-108 victory over the Indiana Pacers to take a 1-0 series lead in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
Cleveland may be the defending NBA champions but they are hardly invincible, even if guard Kyrie Irving bristled at a question about feeling ‘vulnerable’ after the game.
“Hell no,” Irving said. “No, not going into any game with the group we have.”
Maybe they should feel vulnerable because they’ve looked it for months now and Saturday’s win did nothing to alleviate concerns that had been building and hovering over the team.
Despite a pair of steals by Irving in the closing minutes, defense seems to remain optional for this year’s Cavaliers.
Indiana shot 49.4 percent from the field Saturday but they were above 50 percent for much of the afternoon until the late stages of the fourth quarter. The Cavs allowed 5 Pacers to score in double figures led by forward Paul George’s 29 that saw him hit 6 of 9 3-pointers.
Luckily the Cavs were equally as hot from the field – at least for most of the day – and the Pacers just as bad defensively.
Indiana won the hustle game.
They out-rebounded the Cavs 41-34, outscored Cleveland in the paint 46-42 and won the second-chance points battle 11-9.
Then there was Cleveland’s atrocious free throw shooting that saw them make just 11 of 28 freebie attempts. Had they made a few more of those, maybe the game isn’t hanging in the balance on the final possession.
“The playoffs are about adjustments and what you can do better,” Cavs head coach Tyronn Lue said. “I just think that if we got to those 50-50 balls and those offensive rebounds, that it would have been a totally different game.”
Sure, Irving scored 23 points and dished out 6 assists but he was not efficient offensively. Irving made just 11 of 27 shots, including 1 of 9 3-point tries. He missed 4 more shots than 7 other Cavs not named James did combined.
“I think we played well enough to win this basketball game,” Irving said. “[We had] come big stops down the stretch, but we put ourselves in great position. [We had] a lot of easy missed free throws as well as layups that could’ve swayed the game and given us the cushion that we needed, but we just have a resilient group.”
After Miles’ shot fell short and the final horn sounded as the clock hit 00:00 it still didn’t feel like the Cavs won, even though they executed Lue’s defensive plan in the closing seconds flawlessly – don’t let George take the final shot.
Lue sent LeBron James and J.R. Smith at George up top forcing George to give up the ball and bounce a pass to Miles on the left side.
“We got it out of his hands and made someone else beat us,” Lue said.
Fortunately for Lue, who dubbed Miles a Cavs killer earlier in the week, the shot was off and everyone could take a deep breath and release a massive sigh of relief.
James was his usual playoff magnificent self – 32 points while making 12 of 20 shots. He pulled down 5 rebounds and handed out 13 assists.
After an opening quarter that saw 6 lead changes and 7 ties, the Cavs held the Pacers at arms length pretty much all afternoon using a 10-0 run late in the third quarter to go up by 12 capped by a monster James dunk that brought the sellout crowd to its feet.
But they were unable to deliver the knockout blow and as a result they came within inches of receiving one.
“We can play better, and we will play better,” Lue said.