Pistons can't handle big moment, fall to Cavaliers

Terry Foster
The Detroit News

Auburn Hills — Anticipation and electricity hit The Palace for the first time in years.

LeBron James was in the house facing an old nemesis in Tayshaun Prince. There was a new battle that is likely to brew into a nice boil as Reggie Jackson faced Kyrie Irving for the first time as a Piston.

Big-time, fun basketball returned to The Palace on Tuesday night, and the youthful Pistons held up against the Cleveland Cavaliers, but could not hang on to a 14-point lead, wearing down in a 102-93 loss.

It was a simple case of a superior team imposing its will on the Pistons. The Cavs applied the knockout punch with a defense-choking 36-11 second-half run that propelled Cleveland to its 17th win in the last 19 games.

By the time the game ended the crowd of 19,087 was quiet and drained. The Pistons (23-34) failed in their attempt to beat a third top-five Eastern Conference contender in a week.

Kevin Love (24 points) was too deadly from the outside, hitting eight 3-pointers as the Pistons defense kept getting trapped in pick and rolls and lost sight of him. James flirted with a triple-double and finished with 19 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds while running the show from the point.

The dagger came with 3:04 remaining as James lined up Jackson with a crossover and 3-pointer that gave the Cavs a 94-83 lead. Soon the crowd headed into the cold with long faces and dreams of yesterday.

"They just turned up their defense," forward Greg Monroe said. "They started getting into us. We just could not do things as comfortably as we could in the first half. That really was the difference. We have to do a better job as a team of staying aggressive and controlling our personal space. We have to continue to play at the level we were. We kind of got out of rhythm."

Their team faded down the stretch, scoring just 31 points in the second half on 30.8 percent shooting.

"They really turned up the pressure on us," Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy said. "We had trouble finishing inside. We had trouble taking care of the ball. We had turnovers."

For much of the evening, the building rocked and was near capacity. Close your eyes and it felt like 1989 or 2004 all over again when the Pistons ruled the winter and were must-watch viewing.

Jackson did not throw up as he did in his first game with the Pistons. Instead he threw down with 22 points, eight rebounds and nine assists. Irving finished with 18 points and five assists.

There were many bright moments that brought the crowd to its feet. There was the Prince block of James followed by a ringing dunk by Prince in his first game back after a deadline trade brought him to Detroit.

Usually mild-mannered Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (21 points) drained 3s, flexing for the audience and chirping for teammates. One of his 3-pointers came with 10:38 remaining in the third quarter and gave the Pistons a 67-53 lead.

But this game was not meant to be easy. The Pistons grew sloppy and James turned passer as the Cavs went on a 10-0 run to slice the lead to 67-63 in under two minutes as James turned passer and Love finished off a pair of 3-pointers.

The Pistons could never stop Love, who ran off pick and rolls and stepped outside to hit open 3-pointers.

"We probably changed the scheme a little bit," Van Gundy said. "I will take the blame on that."

This meant something for both teams. The Cavs are trying to claw their way up into a more favorable position for the Eastern Conference playoffs and the Pistons are trying to claw their way into the playoffs as the bottom half of the East springs leaks.

That is why players dove for loose balls, fought and clawed for position. It was not just another game. It was THE game for the Pistons.

They just could not close out a superior team.

The Cavs played with poise and the Pistons panicked in the big moment, fumbling passes and missing easy shots before the Cavaliers turned nearly perfect in the second half.

It was a measuring stick for the Pistons, who wanted to see how they stacked up against the NBA elite. Their spirit and determination worked for a while but they could not hang on to the Cavs, who appear to be playing at a different level.