Auburn Hills — Plenty to fear, nothing to lose. That’s how the Pistons enter their first playoff foray in seven years, completing the circle.
LeBron James and the Cavaliers swept them out in 2009, officially extinguishing that Pistons era. Now James and the Cavaliers welcome them back, and are expected by many to sweep them again (or win in five), starting Sunday in Cleveland.
But beyond the matchup symmetry, this is different, a long-anticipated beginning instead of a dreary ending for the Pistons. They might even harbor glimmers of competitive hope, and by “glimmers of competitive hope,” I mean they could win a game or two and make it interesting. James is older and the Pistons are younger. James has trudged through all the battles, won two titles with the Heat, but hasn’t won with the Cavaliers.
The Pistons have talent, led by Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond, but all five starters are 26 or younger and Jackson is the only one to appear in a playoff game. Everyone knows what to expect of the Cavaliers, who are healthier after losing to the Warriors in the NBA Finals last year. No one knows what to expect of the Pistons, and frankly, that might be their lone advantage.
“I think we’re just a hungry team who’s looking forward to the challenge, who wants to make a name for ourselves and prove we’re about something,” Jackson said. “It’s gonna be fun. We have to go in there and try to outgrind them, outwork them, muck it up. It’s probably gonna be an ugly series, and hopefully that favors us. A lot of times when you’re young and dumb, you don’t know any better.”
The smartening and toughening process takes a while, and under Stan Van Gundy, the Pistons are just getting started. The vision is becoming clearer, from far-sighted to near-sighted, with the first eye test right in front of them. They won’t win this series, barring an all-time shocker, and they won’t get criticized for losing it, barring a hideous collapse.
There’s no pressure on the Pistons, and this should be the last year we ever say that. If development continues and Drummond matures and Jackson keeps rising, the Pistons will be in the playoffs regularly, and they won’t get any more pressure freebies.
It’s all on the Cavaliers now, so desperate to win they fired David Blatt with a 30-11 record at midseason and replaced him with rookie coach Tyronn Lue. James said he switched into playoff mode earlier and showed it, averaging 28 points and shooting 63 percent the past 10 games. The Cavaliers have made some adjustments, putting Tristan Thompson in the starting lineup, and the dynamic between James and shoot-first point guard Kyrie Irving can get tricky.
James, 31, averaged the fewest minutes of his career, and has sent mixed messages about his future plans. There’s no misinterpreting his playoff message, freshened up for yet another run.
“If he plays like this, man, we’re going to be tough to beat,” Lue said. “He’s just taken it to a whole other level the last three or four weeks, shooting the ball very well, shooting it with confidence and also getting to the basket.”
This isn’t the same James who famously scorched the Pistons by scoring the final 25 points for the Cavaliers in a double-overtime playoff victory in 2007. He’s no longer the league MVP, thanks to Steph Curry. And he can get harassed into poor shooting, as the Pistons did Feb. 22, winning 96-88 on the road and holding James to 12 points on 5-for-18 shooting.
The Pistons won three of four meetings, although both teams played backups in the finale. And the Pistons have two young, strong, athletic forwards in Marcus Morris and Tobias Harris who at least can match up physically. But anyone who thinks the season series is a precursor hasn’t watched James. With the Heat and the Cavaliers, he’s won 13 straight first-round games, including three sweeps.
“We gotta get ready for the playoff Cleveland Cavaliers, not the regular-season Cleveland Cavaliers,” Morris said. “We’ve been counted out all year, so we don’t have nothing to lose. I think they’re gonna be the tighter team, because we’re the eighth seed. I think we come out and just play loose.”
Slaying the giant
Five times in NBA history an eight seed has beaten a top seed, so the Pistons aren’t on some impossible, carefree lark. If they struggle to shoot and don’t crank up their defense, they could get embarrassed. If they play more efficient offense and cut down on turnovers, they could provide a challenge.
Van Gundy is a playoff-tested coach, 48-39 with Miami and Orlando, and his Magic knocked out James’ Cavaliers in the 2009 East finals. Jackson had a couple stirring playoff runs with Oklahoma City, averaging 21 points in 30 games, primarily when Russell Westbrook was injured. That got Jackson noticed, and ultimately got him a big deal with the Pistons.
At some point, Jackson, Drummond and the Pistons will have to become a bigger deal. This is an important step, making the playoffs at 44-38, but the true value doesn’t come just from participating, but from learning.
“I love it,” Jackson said of the matchup. “The world’s not picking us anyway. They’re supposed to be the title contenders from the East, so we might as well get our crack at them, right? I don’t want to fight Goliath’s homeboy or little brother. I want to go fight Goliath.”
Uh, that would be King Goliath, right? King James once had to scrap through the experienced Pistons to get better and become a champion. If these youthful Pistons ever are to repeat the cycle, this is the place to start.