DETROIT (AP)—When threatened, the Detroit Pistons are at their best.
Too much cockiness usually doesn’t work for the Pistons because it lulls them into a false sense of security, leading to 1-on-1 moves and lackluster effort on defense and the glass.
Detroit plays up to its vast potential by sharing the ball, defending with passion and rebounding aggressively.
The Pistons know they have to stick to that script in the conference finals — starting Monday night at home—because LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers are good enough to beat them in a matchup of the East’s top-seeded teams.
Detroit doubted that entering the conference semifinals last year. It almost cost the Pistons after winning the first two games.
Cleveland won three straight and had the Pistons on the brink of elimination — coming off two straight trips to the NBA finals—before they responded to adversity again by winning the last two games.
“What helps us is what they did to us last year,” Detroit coach Flip Saunders said. “That’s a positive for us. They had us down, and we came back and knew we had to win Game 6 to get to Game 7.
“That’s why this year, except for the one game when we got beat in overtime, we came out focused knowing if we didn’t, they would beat us.”
Detroit beat the Cavs in three of four games during the regular season, with the lone loss coming in overtime.
James said it doesn’t matter that the Pistons view Cleveland as more of a challenge than they did a year ago.
“It’s not about trying to win somebody’s respect,” he said. “It’s about trying to win a series.”
The Cavs are more confident about their chances to advance to the NBA finals — for the first time since the franchise was born in 1970—than they were a year ago.
“We feel like we can do it,” reserve point guard Eric Snow said. “We just have to go out and get it done.”
James is better and his teammates are, too, perhaps because the 22-year-old star seems to rely on them more on the court in his fourth NBA season and second postseason.
“Coming in, he thought he had to do so much,” Saunders said. “He kept the ball so much. Now, he makes quicker decisions and he trusts his teammates more.”
The Cavs are deeper, too, with players like high-energy forward Anderson Varejao a part of a nine-man rotation.
“The difference between them a year ago or two years ago and this year, is that they’re not a one-man team,” Saunders said. “They have more people they can go to, they play their bench more and they always seem to have someone who comes up big for them.”
James acknowledged his teammates played a big role in lifting Cleveland to the conference finals for the first time since 1992.
“Without them this definitely wouldn’t be possible,” he said. “We’ve been talking about trying to make a run, we’ve been chanting, `championship’ all year and now we’ve made it closer to what we want to accomplish.”
The Pistons are fueled by the disappointments that have followed their 2004 title, the third in franchise history. Detroit had a chance to repeat in Game 7 at San Antonio.
Last year, Detroit lost to the eventual champion Miami Heat in the conference finals after the Cavs added to a season-long grind for a team that won an NBA-high and franchise-record 64 games.
“Going seven games with them, it took a lot out of us. You have to give them credit,” reserve guard Lindsey Hunter said of Cleveland’s effort in the seven-game conference semifinals. “It probably cost us making it back to the finals.”
The Pistons are in the conference finals for the fifth straight year, a streak matched just four other times in 20-plus years, after beating Chicago in six games and opening the postseason with a sweep over Orlando.
The Cavs began the postseason by sweeping seventh-seeded Washington and eliminating sixth-seeded New Jersey in six games.
“They’re a team to be reckoned with now,” Hunter said. “They’ve made it this far and all of the elite teams are still playing, so you have to consider them elite. We have to really buckle down and be focused.
“Tested or not, they’ve made it so they deserve to be here.”