CLEVELAND (AP) — Their regular-season issues followed the Cavaliers into the playoffs.
They didn’t win their postseason opener as much as survive it.
LeBron James scored 32 points and the defending champions, looking to flip the switch after a shaky regular season, began the NBA playoffs by escaping with a 109-108 victory over the Indiana Pacers on Saturday.
Indiana could have won it in the final seconds, but C.J. Miles, who Cleveland’s players and coaches call a “Cavs killer,” missed a 14-foot jumper just before the horn.
“C.J. had a pretty decent look,” Pacers coach Nate McMillan said. “We have to make that shot.”
Playing in his 200th playoff game, James added 13 assists and six rebounds while winning his 18th consecutive first-round game.
However, it was anything but easy as the Cavs, who had a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter, had to withstand a strong comeback by the Pacers, who had the ball and a chance to win with 20 seconds left. Indiana wanted star Paul George to take the last shot, but Cleveland double-teamed him and he was forced to pass it to Miles, whose shot was on line but short.
“I talked to C.J. about it,” George said. “In situations like that, I gotta get the last shot. I was asking for it. C.J. took it upon himself.”
Kyrie Irving added 23 points and Kevin Love had 17 for Cleveland, which has won 12 straight playoff games at home.
George scored 29 points and Lance Stephenson had 16 for the seventh-seeded Pacers, who will try to even the series on Monday night.
Cleveland had several bad possessions down the stretch and the Cavs went only 14 of 27 from the free-throw line.
After dropping their last four and going 10-14 since March 1, the Cavs entered the postseason appearing very vulnerable. It’s too soon to say whether they have their act together, but for three quarters they looked more like a team capable of reaching its third straight Finals.
Irving dismissed the idea that Cavs feel vulnerable.
“Hell, no,” he snapped. “Not going into the game with the group that we have.”
Indiana played a solid all-around game, matching the Cavs at both ends and even out-rebounding them.
But, as usual, the Pacers couldn’t contain James, who improved to 45-7 in the opening round and made sure he and his teammates didn’t stumble out of the postseason gate.
As he does every year, James avoids social media and other outside communication, a tradition he calls “Zero Dark 23.” Coach Tyronn Lue said there is a noticeable transformation in James, trying to make his seventh Finals in a row, when the ball goes up in April.
“Not a lot of laughing. A lot of seriousness,” he said. “When the playoffs start, it’s just his time. He’s always focused and that’s just who he’s been since I’ve been around him.”
The 32-year-old James made the most sensational play of the first half, soaring in the lane to grab a lob with his back to the basket before adjusting his body and delivering a reverse dunk — the kind of play only he seems to make.
Pacers: This is G Jeff Teague’s third straight postseason facing the Cavs. He was previously with Atlanta, which was swept by Cleveland in 2015 and 2016. … Indiana has been in playoff mode for weeks and George carried the Pacers down the stretch go to get them into the postseason by averaging 32.8 points, 8.2 rebounds and 4.5 assists during a 5-1 April. “What you see from good players is those guys being able to elevate their game,” McMillan said. “Really the last month, we’ve been in the position where we needed our good player to do that in order for us to be standing here today. And he has done that.”
Cavaliers: In his 14th season, James led the league in minutes, averaging 37.8 per game. He and Lue wanted to taper the star’s playing time in the final month, but that didn’t happen until the last week. Lue doesn’t anticipate the minutes catching up to James, but that remains an unknown. “LeBron’s a competitor, he wants to win and me tapering his minutes down, he thought it would be bad, especially with the things we was going through at the time,” Lue said. “We just gotta see how his body feels and he’ll communicate that with me.”
Game 2 is Monday night at Quicken Loans Arena.
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