Auburn Hills — It takes more than feistiness and fearlessness. It takes clutch shots and rebounding and the best from your best players. And yes, it also takes time.
That’s the lesson the Pistons will tote into the offseason, after another admirable effort in another tight loss to the Cavaliers. The Cavs have been here many times and it showed as they finished off the sweep with a 100-98 victory Sunday night.
The Pistons are new to the playoff party, and if you can make a point while getting swept, this is it — they’ll be back. Nobody beats LeBron James in the first round, and the Pistons scratched to the final buzzer. When Kentavious Caldwell-Pope drilled a 3-pointer with 1:08 left, the Palace crowd erupted, and the Cavs lead was down to one. Moments later, with the fans still standing and roaring, Kyrie Irving calmly responded with a 3, and that’s how this series went.
Every Detroit charge was met with a crushing Cleveland answer. It wasn’t unexpected, obviously. And there was tension down to the last shot, when Reggie Jackson fired a 3-point attempt to win it, and it glanced off the rim as the horn sounded. Defiant to the end, Jackson insisted he got fouled.
Under Stan Van Gundy, the Pistons have adopted the necessary attitude. Next step is the altitude, trying to go higher. Andre Drummond, Marcus Morris, Tobias Harris and Caldwell-Pope had never played in the postseason and should be better for the experience. Jackson should be better with more experience. It was an important, if brief, foray for a young core that should continue to grow.
Much will depend on Drummond, and the Pistons’ long-term plan for him hasn’t changed. Owner Tom Gores said after the game he “absolutely” is comfortable giving Drummond a maximum contract and will discuss it this summer. It’s really the only choice. When fully engaged, Drummond can be a force at both ends of the floor. The Pistons need to make it work because he’s 6-foor-11, only 22 years old and a rarity, however raw he is.
The Drummond Dilemma must be solved, and it’s on him to solve it. The free-throw woes – 11-for-34 in the series — have to change so Drummond can render the “Hack-a-Drummond” strategy moot, whether the league changes the rule or not. Drummond didn’t play the final six minutes of the last two games, and that can’t continue. He knows it, and was philosophical looking ahead.
“The team we have, I wouldn’t trade them for anybody,” Drummond said. “These guys know what I’ve been through these last four years. Sometimes it’s frustrating not being out there with them (on the court), but you gotta keep your head up and cheer them on. I’m looking forward to having the same guys back next season, and try to pick up where we left off.”
The Pistons still have a ways to go, but they’re clearly on their way after being out of the playoffs for six years. Just getting here isn’t the goal anymore. Staying longer is the next goal. It can be a hollow lament to say the games were close, but in this case, it mattered. It mattered to a franchise with a rich history of playoff competitiveness. It mattered to Van Gundy, who takes little solace in empty encouragement but appreciated his team’s effort.
Something is starting here, as long as nobody gets sidetracked.
“Really proud of them,” Gores said. “We worked hard, we got some tough breaks, but you know what, this team has a really big future. I think we gave Cleveland more than they really expected.”
Speaking of giving a lot, Gores didn’t hesitate when asked about Drummond’s contract.
“He’s working hard and I think he’ll crack the code (on free throws),” Gores said. “I’m not worried about it at all. I think he’s a great player. He deserves (a max deal), without a doubt.”
The Pistons entered with virtually no playoff experience and exited like a team that felt it belonged. And for what it’s worth, the Cavs felt their presence. But Cleveland has its Big Three, and Irving was remarkably clutch in the clincher with 31 points. The Pistons’ front line was tough — Morris had 24 points, Harris had 23 — and Drummond might have done more damage (17 points, 11 rebounds) if he could’ve stayed on the floor.
I don’t think the Cavs were ever shaken by the Pistons, but James and his buddies felt threatened enough to play the officiating card, and also the “Hack-a-Drummond” card.
“For us as a young team, we competed and gave them a helluva series,” rookie Stanley Johnson said. “Even though we got swept, I think they shot a lot of bullets that they probably wanted to save. Nothing but respect for them.”
A little more nasty
Tyronn Lue suggested before Game 4 that James is like the Shaquille O’Neal of guards and forwards, impossible to officiate properly because he’s so strong. There’s some truth to that, but it’s mildly amusing it became an issue against the eighth-seeded Pistons, who are just starting to find their physical edge.
The Cavs were miffed Drummond wasn’t punished for an accidental, inconsequential elbow to James’ head in Game 3, but they know the deal. A young team always tries to climb into the head of a superstar, and the Pistons were more feisty than nasty. Frankly, they’ll need to ratchet that up going forward, when consolations won’t be acceptable.
“Teams get a small window so you gotta capitalize on it,” Jackson said. “We don’t know how big ours is, but I think we have a chance to be a special team. Coming back next season, we have to grasp the moment and the opportunity and make the most of it. You can’t take it for granted.”
It was good to see The Palace lively again and good to hear the crowd serenade James with boos every time he touched the ball. It was even entertaining to hear players such as Jackson and Johnson talk boldly about James, although words won’t be enough, eventually.
It’s too early to suggest seeds are planted for a rivalry renewal, considering the Cavs have beaten the Pistons in 12 straight playoff games, the longest streak in the NBA. The Big Three of James, Irving and Kevin Love should make it back to the NBA Finals, and might even win it this year.
The Pistons saw why. If it wasn’t Love drilling 3-pointers one night, it was Irving or JR Smith. The Cavs built an 11-point lead Sunday night but the Pistons clawed back, and when Caldwell-Pope hit a 3-pointer, it was 74-74. Moments later, Irving hit a half-court heave at the third-quarter buzzer, and the Cavs couldn’t miss when it mattered.
It was another frustrating night for the Pistons, and they’ll head into the offseason unfulfilled but enlightened. They got a taste of the playoffs, and while they weren’t there long, it was enough to help them understand everything it takes.