Auburn Hills — The Pistons have faced LeBron James before. They’ve even beaten him. Twice in three meetings this season alone.
But as Stan Van Gundy and his team hit the practice floor Friday in preparation for Sunday’s Eastern Conference playoff opener against James and the Cavaliers, the Pistons coach didn’t need to remind everyone that’s fool’s gold.
“Our guys understand this: The LeBron James you see during the year is not gonna be the LeBron James you see in the playoffs,” Van Gundy said. “You’re gonna have a different guy.”
And the guy who’ll be primarily tasked with defending James, the four-time MVP and 12-time All-Star, seems to understand that as well as anyone. Or at least as well as someone who’s never faced that guy before.
Ask Marcus Morris about some mid-February success against the Cavaliers — that Feb. 22 win in Cleveland might’ve saved the Pistons season — and he’ll interrupt you before you’ve finished the question.
“That goes out the window,” Morris said. “It’s playoffs now. Everything you did during the season really doesn’t even matter at this point. So I’m not even gonna entertain that. I’m gonna get ready for the playoff Cleveland Cavaliers, not the regular season Cleveland Cavaliers.”
More than anything, that means getting ready for a different animal in James, who looks and sounds supremely motivated this spring as he seeks an unprecedented sixth consecutive trip to the NBA Finals. He’s averaging nearly a triple-double his last 10 games — 28.4 points, 8.0 rebounds and 8.5 assists — since he raised a red flag after what he termed a “concerning” loss March 19 in Miami.
And while the rest of the league was captivated by Golden State chasing history — and that record 73-9 finish — as well as Kobe Bryant’s show-stopping swan song this week, James was quietly declaring himself playoff-ready.
“I’m in that mode right now,” James said. “I’m where I want to be.”
LeBron 10-0 in 1st round
So are the Pistons, of course, back in the playoffs for the first time since 2009, when James unceremoniously swept them into exile with a dominant first-round performance. But while the trajectory is different this time — these Pistons are young and restless, not old and resigned — the challenge is even more daunting.
James is surrounded by a better supporting cast these days, with All-Star talents in Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love — both healthy, unlike a year ago — and arguably the best 3-point shooting team in the East. He’s also a wily veteran, with 178 career playoff games to his credit — 148 more than Reggie Jackson, the lone Pistons starter with any postseason experience.
James never has lost a first-round playoff series in his career, going 10-0. He hasn’t even lost a first-round game since 2012, when the Knicks narrowly avoided a sweep against James and the Heat.
So while the Cavaliers star is quick to praise the Pistons — “They fought their way into the playoffs, and we have to respect them,” James said Friday — history suggests there’s little intrigue here.
And there won’t be if Morris — along with Tobias Harris, who’ll be asked to do his part, particularly on pick-and-roll switches — can’t do his job.
Morris helped key the Pistons playoff push with his offensive surge, averaging 15.9 points and 5.5 rebounds the final 16 games while shooting 54.5 percent from 3-point range. But the 6-foot-9, 235-pound forward — acquired from the Suns in a steal of a deal last July after the Pistons struck out on their prime targets in free agency — knows it’ll be his defensive contribution that counts just a bit more in this series.
“The only thing I can do is try my best and give it 100 percent,” said Morris, who finished fifth in the NBA in minutes played this season — his first as a full-time starter. “LeBron’s a great player. He’s the best player in the league. So it’s definitely gonna be a tough matchup. But I’m up for it.”
He was up for it that slump-busting win in Cleveland after the All-Star break, when Morris logged 40 minutes and helped limit James to 12 points on 5-for-18 shooting. And even in a losing effort in late January, when Morris and James got tangled up after a rebound midway through the third quarter, started jawing at each other, and eventually had to be separated by teammates after drawing a double foul.
Not exactly Bad Boys stuff there, but a good sign, nonetheless. And something the Pistons will need plenty more of if they’re to hang around in this series.
“He’s a tough kid,” center Andre Drummond said of Morris, who at 26 — and in his fifth season — is Detroit’s oldest starter. “I know he’s excited. And I think he’s gonna do pretty well.”
Well enough to be left alone? We’ll see, but that’ll be the goal going in, as Van Gundy tries to get his young team to eliminate the defensive lapses that’ve killed them, at times, this season. For Morris, it means staying in front of James, limiting his drives and his cuts, as well as his offensive rebounds. And it means doing that without sending him to the free-throw line 15 or 20 times a game.
He’s done it before.
“And I think he’s done what you can do, which is you go out and battle him every night,” Van Gundy said. “You don’t give him anything easy.”
But that was the regular season and this is the playoffs, and Morris — along with the rest of the Pistons — are about to find out just how hard it really is to compare the two.