INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP)—There’s no love in the NBA playoffs. Now is not the time nor the place for fondness or friendship.
With so much on the line, the pressure can be smothering. And with each possession, game and series the intensity increases to unmatched levels.
“It’s 100 times what it is in the regular season,” said Cavaliers superstar LeBron James.
Buckle up. It’s here.
About to enter his fourth postseason, and this time fully confident he and his Cleveland teammates will finish what has been a season of seasons with the shiny Larry O’Brien Trophy in their grasp, James has learned the playoffs can turn the best of friends into the worst of enemies.
“You’re playing the same team over and over,” he said. “You start to hate that person, you’re tired of seeing them everyday. You have no reason why you hate them or don’t like them, it’s just seeing the same person and the same plays, you have to be really dialed in on what’s going on.”
So getting focused to play the Washington Wizards the past three years was a challenge?
“No,” James said. “We really hated them.”
The Cavaliers don’t hold quite the same disdain for their first-round opponent this season, but they aren’t friendly with their Michigan neighbors either.
The Cavs and Pistons, who will open their best-of-seven series on Saturday at Quicken Loans Arena, know each other inside and out.
Central Division rivals, this is the third time in the past four years that they’ve met playoffs. Two years ago, Cleveland, behind an epic performance from James in Game 5, beat the Pistons in the Eastern Conference finals to avenge a loss to Detroit the previous year in a rough-and-tumble conference semifinal.
The rosters haven’t changed much since. The roles sure have.
With 66 regular-season wins—and a sparkling 39-2 mark in their rowdy arena — the Cavaliers enter as the No. 1 overall seed.
Like the Motor City itself, the No. 8 Pistons have fallen on hard times. At 39-43, they’re the only team in the 16-team field with a losing record.
On paper, it appears to be a major mismatch.
“It’s going to be a good challenge,” Pistons center Rasheed Wallace said. “They’ve got a pretty good record, a pretty good home record and I know they are feeling themselves right now.
“So I guess it’s going to be like David vs. Goliath.”
Except these Davids have more than one slingshot in their arsenal.
The Pistons, a perennial power and the only Eastern team to make the playoffs eight straight seasons, are still a threat. They’re talented and could be trouble if the confident Cavs overlook them.
That’s not likely.
“They have a lot of experience,” Cleveland center Zydrunas Ilgauskas said. “They’ve been in the playoffs. They are a dangerous team. It won’t be easy. We expect a tough series.”
Cleveland took the season series 3-1, winning the most recent matchup 79-73 at home on March 31. That game was like most between the defensive-minded teams in recent years—tight, tough and tense where open shots are rare and one scoring run can be all it takes to win.
The Pistons only broke 90 points once this season against the Cavs, who were the league’s stingiest defense team, holding opponents to 91.4 points per game. Detroit averaged just 81 and shot only 41 percent against Cleveland, which could be without center Ben Wallace (strained knee) early in the series.
And unless coach Michael Curry devises something unique, Detroit’s predictable offense won’t offer the Cavs any surprises.
“We know their personnel. We know what they like to do,” Ilgauskas said. “When they call a play, we already know what it’s going to be.”
But the Cavaliers will be seeing their fifth—and healthiest—Pistons starting lineup.
“We will be prepared,” Tayshaun Prince said. “The coaches are going to do a good job preparing us. We just have to execute.”
If the Pistons can keep the tempo in their favor, if they can make their shots and if they can contain James, they’ve got a puncher’s chance.
“With the guys we have, I think we’re capable of doing it,” Wallace said. “We have playoff guys in here. We know what we need to do.”
Taking away the Cavaliers’ seemingly invincible home-court advantage would be the place to start. If the Pistons can somehow split the first two games— Game 2 is on Tuesday—Detroit would go home feeling much better about its chances of advancing past the first round again.
“The season’s over, the playoffs is a whole new, different season,” guard Richard Hamilton said. “Now it’s time to go ahead and try to make a run. It will be a lot tougher this year than any other year, finishing eighth. But we have to figure a way to win.”
James stands in the way. The likely league MVP averaged 33 points, 8.6 rebounds and 8.3 assists in four games against Detroit. He and his teammates don’t loathe the Pistons the way they do the Wizards.
“It’s not that personal with Detroit,” he said. “We never really had any big confrontations with Detroit. It’s a good rivalry with them. We like playing against them. We take the challenge and they do, too.”