"You hear us in the locker room right now,'' James said, referring to the laughter of his teammates before practice Wednesday. "I mean, we've been down in a series before.''
Last year, Cleveland was losing 2-0 to Detroit in the Eastern Conference finals before running off four straight victories as James averaged 31.3 points, 9.8 rebounds and 8.8 assists during that streak. The circumstances are different in these conference semifinals: The Cavs have been a middling 18-16 (including the playoffs) while trying to work February arrivals Ben Wallace, Wally Szczerbiak, Delonte West and Joe Smith into the rotation since the trade deadline. They also miss the versatility of swingman Sasha Pavlovic, who has been limited by injury in the playoffs after providing perimeter shooting and the occasional drive to the basket last season.
When the series reconvenes here Thursday, the Cavs must expect another strong defensive effort from the Celtics, who led the league in defense and held Cleveland to 30.7 percent shooting in Game 1. The Celtics were physical against James, who acknowledged missing four or five layups as he was swarmed by big men Garnett and/or Kendrick Perkins alongside primary defenders Paul Pierce or James Posey whenever he tried to drive to the basket. The Celtics didn't seem to mind ignoring Ben Wallace or Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who led Cleveland with 22 points.
And yet, James had a chance to tie the game in the closing moments with a creative drive through the double team. But he missed a layup with 8.5 seconds remaining. "I laid the ball over the top of the rim like I do 100 times in a row [when] I make it,'' he said. "Once it didn't go down, that just let me know the way my night was going.''
Was it the worst game of his five-year career? "Nah, it's not the worst,'' James said. "At the end of the day, we still had a chance to win.''
Indeed, the Cavs had a remarkably similar defensive impact on Pierce and Allen, holding them to a combined 2-for-18 with 10 turnovers. "Me and Ray Allen feel like we played him to a standstill,'' said Pierce, who could afford to joke despite his four-point night.
Game 2 should define this series in several ways. Will the top-seeded Celtics take a significant 2-0 lead, or will the No. 4 Cavs return to Cleveland with home-court advantage? Will this be a series of throttling defense, or will James, Pierce and Allen be liberated? (Fans will hope for the latter, because Game 1 was practically unwatchable entertainment.)
Which team will be quickest to recover from the opening-night hangover? The Celtics' formula is straightforward: Get more production from Pierce, who must continue to drive to the basket while finishing at a greater frequency, and create a more meaningful role for Allen, who disappeared for the majority of his 37 minutes Tuesday.
The Cavs are counting on a return to normal from James, who averaged 32.3 points against the Celtics during the season while winning two of the three games in which he played. There was much reassuring talk around his relaxed locker room Wednesday of how James rarely suffers two bad games in a row.
To create room for his star, Cleveland coach Mike Brown is looking for more passing from one side of the floor to the other, better spacing and increased player movement whether by pick-and-roll or cuts to the basket.
James sounded confident about recovering his form in hopes of seizing control against a Celtics team that has struggled offensively during the playoffs.
"Everything they did, I expected. ... I've seen it all,'' said James, who for all his experience is still the second-youngest player on his team. "I know what I can do, and it's never been a confidence issue. I know I can bounce back. If I have a bad game or two bad games, it's not like I'm soul-searching or anything like that. I know I'm going to bounce back and I know I can't play no worse than I played [Tuesday] night.''