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How are Cavaliers handling another near meltdown? Just fine

CLEVELAND -- Before the Cleveland Cavaliers bounded out onto the court for their first chance to defend the title they shocked the basketball world with 10 months ago, LeBron James gathered his teammates in the wood-paneled hallway outside the locker room.

"This is the start of a long-ass journey," James said. "There's going to be adversity. There's going to be challenges. ... The key is to stay even-keeled."

Adversity hit quicker than expected as the No. 7-seeded Indiana Pacers swallowed up the No. 2-seeded Cavs' late 12-point lead and were a CJ Miles midrange jumper away from doing some shocking of their own. Miles' 14-footer fell short and Cleveland held on for a 109-108 win to go up 1-0.

Afterward, Indiana did not appear so even-keeled in digesting the missed opportunity, as Paul George openly questioned Miles for taking the last shot after George passed out of a double-team, expecting to have the ball back in his hands for the final attempt.

"I gave the ball up to try to soften them up and get the ball back," George said. "I talked to CJ about it. In situations like that, I have to have the last shot."

For Cleveland, meanwhile, it was a game in which it nearly wasted a late lead the way it had so many times in the regular season. The Cavs allowed the Pacers to shoot 49.4 percent from the field and 45.8 percent from 3 after supposedly locking in on defense all week. They turned the ball over 11 times, leading to 19 Indiana points. They scored half as many points in the fourth quarter (17) as they did in the first (34). They came one Miles shot away from losing.

Yet the Cavs barely flinched at how dicey things got.

"If I didn't get that block last year in the Finals, what happens?" James retorted when asked how Cleveland would have handled things had Miles made it. "If Kyrie [Irving] didn't make the 3? If Steph [Curry] would have made the 3. There's so many [hypotheticals]. You can't look at a game like that.

"He missed, we won."

Irving was asked if the overall output in Game 1, which shared some common themes with the Cavs' disturbing finish to the regular season in terms of shoddy defense and failure to protect a lead, left him and his teammates feeling vulnerable. "Feel vulnerable? Hell no," he quipped. "Not going into any game with the group that we have. I understand there's some mistakes that happen throughout the game, and the regular season didn't end the way we wanted it to, but like I said, it's just a step in the right direction. Game 1, just taking care of home floor and have to come out for Game 2 with an even higher focus and even better level of intensity, limit our mistakes, and we will be good."

It's one thing to remain calm when trouble hits. It's another thing to convince yourself there are no signs of impending doom, like the meme of the dog in the top hat sitting in a burning house saying, "This is fine."

There's a fine line. Just like the Cavs rationalized their regular-season struggles by pointing to injuries, roster upheaval and scheduled rest as the main causes of their disappointing record, they could recognize their atypical 14-for-27 night from the free throw line or Irving's off 11-for-27 showing from the field (including 1-for-9 from 3) as evidence that the Pacers had no business being in the game.

"I'm happy we got the victory," James said. "I'm happy how emotional we was. I'm happy with the energy and the effort. Played with energy and effort all night. ... Game 1 has always been a feel-out game for myself. Seeing what you can do, seeing ways you can get better, and you always go into Game 2 even more prepared because you want to see what type of game plan they have. As the series goes on and on, we start to know more about the team, more about your opponent and try to be better the next game. But, this was a great start for us."

A great start to what he figures will be a long journey.