Niyo: Cavs school Pistons about playoff basketball

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Auburn Hills — It was an interminable wait, all these years without playoff basketball in Detroit.

But it won’t last long, this taste the Pistons are getting right now.

And if it leaves a bitter residue, all the better. Because it only will increase their appetite for more, this empty feeling they’ve got right now.

The Pistons finally scratched their seven-year playoff itch Friday night, but after another second-half effort that left their coach, Stan Van Gundy, scratching his head on the sideline — and shaking it in disgust afterward — they still have nothing to show for it.

Not in this first-round series with the Cavaliers, at least. And after a 101-91 loss in Game 3 at The Palace, they’ll be playing just to avoid a series sweep Sunday night, still trying to snap the longest active playoff losing streak in the NBA. It’s now nine games and counting, dating back to the 2008 playoffs and the end of that remarkable run that saw Detroit reach six consecutive Eastern Conference finals.

The last time the Palace hosted a playoff game was a year later — April 26, 2009, some 2,553 days ago, if you’re keeping track — against this same Cleveland franchise. But that was before LeBron James, the prodigal son, had left and then returned with a pair of championship rings won in Miami. James, who’d brandished the broom back in ’09, dominating the remnants of that Pistons’ powerhouse, was the only starter still around for this return engagement.

The Palace probably hasn’t been this loud since then, either. And as the arena went dark for a pregame hype video Friday night, with Eminem providing the soundtrack and a sellout crowd of 21,584 filled with local celebrities, the building sure sounded ready to rumble.

Quick start

The fans booed James every time he touched the ball once the game tipped off, a hazy smoke still lingering from the pregame pyrotechnics. And though neither team looked all that comfortable initially, the shots started falling and Game 3 began to follow the same script that held for the first two games of the series.

For starters, that was a good thing. But finishing is the hard part in the playoffs, and something this Pistons team – unlike their opponents – have yet to master.

Detroit grabbed an early lead on consecutive fastbreak layups by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope – their leading scorer this series -- forcing Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue to call a quick timeout. The Palace sound system then launched into the first Prince tribute of the night, blasting “Let’s Go Crazy” and the crowd happily obliged.

Entering Friday night’s game, all the talk was about all the talk, not surprisingly. But after letting everyone know they weren’t about to bow down to the defending Eastern Conference champs — with rookie Stanley Johnson the most vocal among the Pistons in challenging the Cavs’ authority — they knew it was time to put up or shut up after Wednesday’s 107-90 loss in Game 2.

“I think, seriously, we need to quit all the talking,” said forward Marcus Morris, who’d cooled off considerably after a red-hot start in Game 1 last weekend.

Johnson was saying the same thing Friday morning, and when James, the four-time league MVP, immediately posted him up and lowered his shoulder early in the second quarter, drawing a quick whistle, the rookie just laughed and clapped his hands at the call.

Later in the quarter, he sparked another run after Van Gundy went with a quick hook to short-circuit Lue’s Hack-a-Drummond strategy. Matthew Dellavedova raced down the floor to intentionally foul the Pistons’ All-Star center with 5:29 left in the half. He made his first free throw, but missed the second, and after his 4-for-16 effort from the line Wednesday, Van Gundy wasn’t taking any chances.

Hanging tough

So he matched the Cavaliers’ small-ball lineup and then watched it work, for a change. Johnson hit a 3-pointer with 2:59 left to give the Pistons the lead again. And after a Kevin Love miss, the rookie’s fastbreak layup made it 51-47, prompting another Cleveland timeout, which Johnson celebrated by waving his arms to bring the fans out of their seats.

There’d be more of that in the second half, as the game see-sawed and the crowd would rise and fall with it. But Johnson was mostly a bystander.

And Van Gundy nearly lost his voice on the Pistons’ bench, exhorting his players to keep their energy up as the Cavaliers — again led by their Big Three of James, Love and Irving, who all scored 20-plus points – threatened to pull away the way they had in Game 2. At one point, he challenged his team in the huddle, “Do you want to win this?”

But after clawing back to within 92-90 on a fastbreak dunk by Caldwell-Pope with 3:56 left, the Pistons stumbled down the stretch. That dunk was the last field goal the team would make, and as things unraveled, so did Van Gundy, slamming down his clipboard at one point.

Van Gundy had yanked Drummond after another intentional foul midway through the fourth quarter, and he never brought him back, even in the final 2 minutes. Asked why, the coach answered with an exasperated tone.

“Because you can’t do anything with him,” Van Gundy said. “He can’t run to set a screen, he can’t do anything. You’ve just got opportunities to foul him. Now, would they have? I don’t know.”

Nor did he know his team would come up empty on nearly every possession even without Drummond on the court. Or that his team would continue to get beat so badly on the boards, giving up 12 offensive rebounds for the game.

But all this is what Van Gundy was referencing earlier Friday, when asked about his team’s strident start to the series playing well back in Detroit, where the fans don’t need much help feeling disrespected.

All that talk? He shook his head.

“What’ll play better with the fans,” Van Gundy said, “is winning.”

And for that, the wait will continue.