The Detroit Pistons match up well with the top seeded Cleveland Cavaliers. The defending Eastern Conference champions seemed to realize this in their first meeting against Detroit on Sunday, but it still took them just about the entirety of Game 1 to pull away.
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The Cavs topped Detroit by a 106-101 score in the opening bout of the team’s first round series, but not before the Pistons gave Cleveland all it could handle in defeat. The Cavaliers also gave the No. 8 seeded Pistons just about all it could handle via sound execution, giving further credibility to the idea that the Cavs weren’t playing down to the middling record of its competition.
Cavs star LeBron James was again the straw that stirred the drink while scaring opponents on either end, but it was Kyrie Irving (a team-leading 31 points) and Kevin Love (28 points, in his fifth career postseason game) that put Cleveland over the top.
James, however, was the tipping point. LeBron dished out 11 assists and scored 22 points with two steals and two blocks alongside superior defense in the win. He turned the ball over just once, in the fourth quarter, leading a Cavalier charge that saw the team coughing it up just four times in the game.
Detroit, who took the regular season series by a 3-1 score against Cleveland, was in the game throughout. It weathered an early Cavaliers charge and even grabbed a 58-53 halftime lead behind 19 points from hybrid Pistons forward Marcus Morris. Morris feasted on a small ball Cleveland lineup that eschewed big man Timofey Mozgov almost entirely (he played just 4:34, and sat out the entire second half), while Love and James flailed away as Morris spotted up from the perimeter.
Morris scored just one point in the second half, however, splitting a pair from the line as he was continuously hounded by Cavalier defenders. His frontcourt mate Tobias Harris put up a respectable line of nine points and 10 rebounds, but he was clearly made to feel uncomfortable on both ends by the presence of James, who chased him into either bad shots or too-late extra passes.
Meanwhile, Love and Irving thrived.
Nearly a year after watching his postseason end in the fourth game of the Cavaliers’ opening round, Love made his hay both inside and out, hitting 4-8 three-pointers and 10-22 overall on his way toward playoff career highs of 28 points and 13 boards. Irving’s inside-out dribble game was also on point, he turned the ball over just once and hit 5-10 three-pointers on his own.
The Pistons just wouldn’t go away, though.
Leading by as much as seven points in the fourth quarter, Detroit relied on its batch of young prospects to keep things interesting. The Pistons played far, far more effective basketball with Harris off the floor and rookie Stanley Johnson in to hound LeBron James. James was hardly deterred, but that wasn’t the point: Johnson added nine points (on 3-4 shooting) and eight rebounds in just 16 minutes, and did not seem swayed in the slightest by the presence of a superstar working in his 179th career playoff game.
Andre Drummond notched a double-double with 11 points and 13 rebounds, while swingman Kentavious Caldwell-Pope led his team with 21 points, nailing 4-8 three-pointers in the close loss. Lead guard Reggie Jackson worked through an abdominal strain to score 17 points on 12 shots, adding seven assists and a pointed edge when his group needed as much.
Working down the stretch, however, the Pistons just could not turn the corner.
Cavs reserve guard Iman Shumpert grimaced his way through knee woes to make life hellish on Jackson in the fourth quarter, as the Cavs outscored Detroit 30-23. Richard Jefferson hit a timely three-pointer in the fourth quarter as well, while starting center Tristan Thompson did yeoman’s work underneath without piling up gaudy rebound totals – he managed just six in 30 minutes, 180 seconds above his regular season average, three caroms off his regular season marks.
Was this Detroit’s best chance at stealing a game?
It’s hard to say. Again, the Pistons topped Cleveland 2-1 in the regular season when both teams featured their starters, and then added to that mark by beating the Cavs on the last night of the regular season with most of the two teams’ starters sitting.
The Pistons will rue the loss of that seven point lead and the tough shots Cleveland forced them into down the stretch, and they’ll no doubt notice that the team punched above its weight from behind the arc: Detroit shot nearly 52 percent from long range, with Johnson (3-3), Caldwell-Pope (4-8), Morris (3-7), Jackson (2-4) and Reggie Bullock (2-2) all hitting for well over their regular season percentages.
Detroit’s blueprint has been in place since the regular season, it led to that 3-1 advantage. Cleveland’s, however, is just starting to shape up – more minutes for Iman Shumpert on Reggie Jackson, smaller lineups, a spread floor and quick hits in the half court. Lots of post-ups for LeBron down the stretch, while unleashing James as a do-everything stopper on the other end.
Cleveland’s game, at least against Detroit, is evolving. It’s now up to the Pistons to provide the counterpunch, while working down 0-1.
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