It was closer than anyone would have imagined, but the Cleveland Cavaliers pushed past the feisty Detroit Pistons 106-101 on Sunday in a thrilling opening to their first round series.
Despite a vast difference in records and playoff experience, Detroit looked like a legitimate rival for the duration of the game while playing the Cavaliers, bothering LeBron James and torching Cleveland with 50 percent shooting from the field.
The Pistons‘ hot shooting was present from the start, keeping Detroit in the game even as the Cavaliers played a great first quarter. Cleveland’s 27-25 lead became a 58-53 halftime deficit, after the Pistons surged ahead as they kept hitting shots, even from players who were mediocre shooters this season.
Between the playoff experience and LeBron James’ general dominance in every first round, it felt like the Cavaliers were primed to pull away from the very start of the first quarter. That’s usually how No. 1 vs. No. 8 series go, after all, with the underdog giving the conference champion a good run at things until the final 12 minutes or so. But Detroit wouldn’t go down nearly that easily. After a huge Kevin Love triple from the corner, shots that easily could have been a backbreaker, Reggie Jackson dribbled down and buried a pull-up three without a moment of hesitation. This huge Kyrie Irving block, with the Pistons having a chance to tie the game, was a killer.
If there was a moment where the Cavaliers pulled away, it came when they squeezed a couple free points out of the Pistons. With Cleveland up 96-92 with the ball, Jackson earned a technical foul by yelling at a referee and then, on the ensuing Kevin Love shot, an unsuspecting Andre Drummond didn’t secure a rebound safely before Irving knocked it out of his hands, off his body and out of bounds. By the time the Cavaliers got the ball back, it was a six-point game and all their momentum had been sapped.
1. Playoff experience didn’t matter for the Pistons
Late in the third quarter, the television broadcast displayed a statistic that seemed rather unnecessary.
— Scott Howard (@ScottHoward42) April 17, 2016
But it’s true that there’s a massive difference in playoff experience between these two teams. In the starting lineup, only Reggie Jackson (30 games) had NBA playoff experience. Out of the entire rotation, it was only Jackson, Steve Blake and Aron Baynes.
Playoff experience isn’t everything: the Warriors hadn’t advanced past the first round when they blazed their way through the NBA last season and won the championship over James. But it helps. Sometimes, young teams come out in playoff series like this one and look just nervous enough that it messes with their play and quickly has them playing catch up.
Not the Pistons. Jackson’s aggressiveness led the way (at least until it backfired late),as he was frequently the player to score when the Pistons really needed to break a mini Cleveland run, and his mannerisms spread to the rest of the roster. Other than that one moment in the fourth quarter, where Jackson earned a technical and Drummond lost the rebound, nothing about their fourth quarter could be described as inexperience hurting them. Perhaps those moments will show up later in the series, but for now, Cleveland would be wise to treat them as equals.
2. Stanley Johnson‘s important night
It’s impossible to shut down LeBron James … but for a quarter at least, Stanley Johnson came very close. As the Pistons clung onto their third quarter lead, Johnson matched up against James and held him to just two points in the frame. Johnson, a 19-year-old who was the No. 8 overall pick last summer, has the type of length and size that you’d expect a James defender to need, but having the tools and actually implementing them on a four-time MVP is much easier said than done. In addition, Johnson nailed three triples, making sure he’ll be a much bigger factor for the rest of this series.
3. But did the Pistons blow their chance?
As good as the Pistons look, you have to wonder if a shooting performance like this is sustainable. Detroit hit 14 three-pointers, with six of them coming from sub-31 percent shooters in Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Johnson. This was a golden opportunity for Detroit to steal Game 1 and truly alter the way Cleveland would have to play this series. Now, with any factor of surprise in their strategy or matchups gone, we have to see if Detroit can play like this for another 48 minutes on Wednesday.
Can Detroit shoot like this again? pic.twitter.com/VINbMz34Ts
— Matt Moore CBS (@MattMooreCBS) April 17, 2016