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There's pain, and hope, in Cleveland

CLEVELAND — How best to measure the pain of a fan base in the wake of the Cavaliers’ loss in the NBA Finals?

Especially when, unlike Jose Mesa’s meltdown or Michael Jordan’s shot, it crept in, pin by pin piercing the well-punctured voodoo doll of Cleveland’s sports history.

Anderson Varejao’s torn Achilles.

Kevin Love’s dislocated shoulder.

Kyrie Irving’s fractured kneecap.

Matthew Dellavedova’s dehydration.

LeBron James’ exhaustion.

Pin by pin, jab by jab, prick by prick, Northeast Ohioans suffered. In a sense, they were being prepared for Tuesday night’s 105-97 loss to the Golden State Warriors at Quicken Loans Arena. The Warriors captured the best-of-seven series 4-2 and earned their first NBA championship in 40 years.

Fans who have supported the Cavs, Browns and Indians with blind loyalty and financial sacrifice only to see the city’s title drought of 51 years stretch on could have been crushed.

But to many, this feels different. Different because James is still here.

Having the self-proclaimed “best player in the world” back home provides hope.

James, 30, will be in his prime for three or four more years, providing he avoids serious injury. A championship, a dynasty, or at least as much of a dynasty as there is any more, is still possible.

James didn’t win a title his first season in Miami with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Despite his summer 2010 prediction of “not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven,” the Heat didn’t break through until James’ second year, then captured the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy in back-to-back years. The Heat went to the NBA Finals all four seasons with James, but he was also denied by the Dallas Mavericks and the San Antonio Spurs.

So there is a feeling the Cavs can get back to the Finals “not two, not three” more times, especially considering the state of the Eastern Conference.

In his Sports Illustrated essay announcing his return to the Cavaliers, James warned it wouldn’t be easy.

“I’m not promising a championship,” James wrote in the piece, told to Lee Jenkins. “I know how hard that is to deliver. We’re not ready right now. No way. Of course, I want to win next year, but I’m realistic. It will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010. My patience will get tested. I’m going into a situation with a young team and a new coach … ”

When that essay hit the Internet last July 11, Cavs rookie coach David Blatt didn’t have Love, who arrived in a three-team trade in August. Blatt didn’t have Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith or Iman Shumpert, acquired by general manager David Griffin in two January deals.

After those moves, the Cavs did seem ready.

But as the injuries mounted and James’ supporting cast dwindled, each step on the playoff road seemed like a gift. Many wondered if the Cavs could beat the Chicago Bulls in the conference semifinals without Love, yet the Cavs won in six games. They captured the East crown, sweeping the Atlanta Hawks, even though Irving missed two games with foot and knee injuries. Then Irving went down in a Game 1 overtime loss to the Warriors, and the Cavs seemed destined for the broom.

Yet they persevered, they overcame and until the end, displayed unparalleled fight. The Cavs went where they were seemingly incapable of going, extinguishing the firepower of the deep and talented Warriors to take a 2-1 lead before it all fell apart.

Even in defeat, there seems no reason for despair.

Love has said he’s coming back. Irving started to learn what it takes to be an elite professional. Tristan Thompson had a breakout season, like Irving following James’ lead.

There will be tough offseason decisions in regard to Thompson, Dellavedova, Shumpert and Smith, who could decline his player option, but the Cavs’ foundation is set. The 51-year drought continues, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.

That hasn’t been the case since at least 2007, when the Cavs were swept by the Spurs in the Finals and the Indians lost to the Boston Red Sox in seven games in the American League Championship Series.

Realistically, the Cavs seem primed for a run like the 1995-99 Indians or the 1985-89 Browns. Yes, those years brought misery. The pain received names like “The Drive” or “The Fumble.” But this Cavs season should not be pigeonholed by the likes of “The Dislocation” or “The Kneecap.”

The pin pricks grow, the voodoo doll’s body becomes more perforated. But after the disappointment fades, hope will prevail.