Niyo: Riled LeBron makes series tougher for Pistons

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Cleveland — They poked the lion, then watched the King roar.

And while the Pistons didn’t exactly flinch — late Wednesday night they were still rolling their eyes at all the noise — they couldn’t stop the bleeding, either, as Game 2 of their first-round series with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers turned into another one of those NBA playoff maulings.

Be careful what you wish for, perhaps. But beware the shots fired, regardless.

Because the defending Eastern Conference champs simply have too much firepower to be left alone, and they reminded everyone of that in record-setting fashion in a runaway, 107-90 victory Wednesday at Quicken Loans Arena.

It wasn’t James’ high-stepping celebrations or his primal scream following a ferocious first-half dunk that really should frighten the Pistons, or their fans bracing for Friday night’s long-awaited playoff return at The Palace.

It was the all-too-familiar defensive lapses from the Pistons that had coach Stan Van Gundy grumbling. And the scoresheet riddled with 3-pointers on the home team’s ledger.

“We shot 38 3s?” guard J.R. Smith said. “Damn.”

Damn right. And they made 20 of them, tying an NBA playoff record held by three other teams, including Golden State last year. In all, eight Cleveland players hit 3-pointers in the game, but they were led by Smith (7-for-11) and backcourt mate Kyrie Irving (4-for-7).

“We’ve got shooters — designated snipers — and I’m not one of them,” said James, who did go 2-for-4 on 3-pointers himself. “I’m more like a tank.”

An angry tank, at that, though James insisted otherwise after the game.

Rough stuff

Van Gundy had fired the first shot in Game 1 on Sunday, grousing in a sideline TV interview about James throwing his weight around with impunity.

“They’re not going to call offensive fouls on him — he gets to do what he wants,” he told ABC’s Lisa Salters, prompting a $25,000 fine from the league.

Cavs’ third-quarter surge overtakes Pistons

But rookie Stanley Johnson had a hand in it, too, openly challenging James in 16 minutes of Greco-Roman grappling off the bench to help set the tone in the series opener.

In the days since, he’d practically begged for more.

James shrugged it all off, yawning about how he wasn’t playing 1-on-1 against “Stan or Stanley or any other Stan.”

“I’m 31 years old, man,” James added, dismissively. “I don’t get caught up in no shenanigans.”

But James really couldn’t help himself Wednesday, clashing again with the Pistons’ 19-year-old rookie late in the first quarter. After Johnson drilled a 3-pointer to put Detroit up 26-17, the Cavaliers called timeout and James gave Johnson a gratuitous shoulder bump — the rookie called it a “cheap” shot — as the two crossed paths headed to their respective benches.

“I’m definitely in his head — that’s for sure,” Johnson said after the loss, and he didn’t stop there, ripping the “little cheerleaders” on the Cavaliers’ bench and painting James as a frontrunner when it comes to talking trash.

“I wish he would just talk when it’s 0-0, not when he’s up 16,” Johnson said.

That he was up 16 in the fourth quarter is the bigger problem, obviously. A 21-4 run in the third doomed the Pistons, while Andre Drummond’s 4-for-16 effort at the free-throw line — “It’s a work in progress,” he said — didn’t help, either.

‘Still standing tall’

And again Wednesday, the Pistons coach was kicking himself for not making quicker adjustments, particularly when his bench was getting torched early. (Johnson and Blake both finished a minus-20 in Game 2.)

But Van Gundy laughed when a Cleveland reporter asked him about Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue’s lineup switch, putting James on the floor with four reserves to start both the second and fourth quarters.

“LeBron’s always a pretty good adjustment, yeah,” Van Gundy deadpanned. “That’s really smart coaching to put LeBron on the floor.”

As for the sense in riling up James, though, we’ll see. He seemed a bit subdued in Game 1, but still finished with 22 points, 11 assists and six rebounds. The four-time league MVP clearly was fired up Wednesday — his violent, two-hand dunk over Reggie Bullock midway through the second quarter was one prime example — and he finished with 27 points, six rebounds and three assists.

And that probably won’t change in 48 hours when James, who passed Michael Jordan on Wednesday with his 180th career playoff appearance, returns to The Palace, the scene of some of his most dominant — and dramatic — postseason performances.

Not the way the Pistons were still stoking the fire after this loss. James, chasing his sixth consecutive trip to the NBA Finals, threw a fit on the court in the fourth quarter, upset over getting hit with an elbow from Drummond and then a forearm by Morris. The TV cameras caught him vowing retribution after he’d finished embellishing the latter.

But afterward he downplayed it all again.

“There hasn’t been one dirty play in this series from me,” James said, when asked about the exchange afterward. “I understand what this is all about. And I’m gonna make sure our guys understand that we’re here to play basketball. Everything else is irrelevant. …

“There’s gonna be video here or video there. It means absolutely nothing. I took a shot. I’m OK. I’m still standing tall. I’ll be ready on Friday.”

The way this first-round series has gone thus far, it’s a safe bet the Pistons — and their fans, who’ve waited seven years for another postseason crack at James — will be, too.