Auburn Hills — In just his fourth game as Cavaliers head coach, Tyronn Lue is looking to find the right formula to utilize his inherited Big Three of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.
While there’s not an exact science to finding how to extract the best play out of the trio, Lue got a glimpse of how good they can be when they have balanced production — and the complementary players can chip in, too.
The Cavaliers’ Big Three combined for 77 points — each reaching 20-plus points in the same game for the first time this season — and the Pistons didn’t have an answer defensively, succumbing 114-106 on Friday night before a packed Palace crowd.
Andre Drummond had 20 points and eight rebounds, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope added 19 points and rookie Stanley Johnson 15 for the Pistons (25-22), who have a tough second game of the back-to-back at Toronto Saturday night.
Love led the charge with 29 points, Irving added 28 and James flirted with a triple-double with 20 points, nine rebounds and eight assists.
“They have three great players who all played great, so you can’t give them second chances,” Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy said. “It’s not all on us; they were terrific. How are you going to beat a good team playing that well?
“You can’t give them second chances, free points at the free-throw line and you have to take away what you can take away — and we didn’t.”
Van Gundy said he wasn’t unhappy with the Pistons’ effort, but while the Cavaliers (33-12) did play well, the Pistons didn’t execute well enough to keep themselves in the game. He cited the Cavaliers’ 29 free throws (and 27 makes), along with 17 second-chance points.
“When all three of those guys play well, you’re going to have a hard time beating them,” he said. “Cut the second-chance points in half, get them to 20 free-throw attempts instead of 29 and we still have a chance with them playing that well.”
Love gave the Pistons trouble with his outside shooting, going 5-of-7 on 3-pointers, showing one of the assets that Lue looked to improve when he took over from David Blatt last week.
His 29 points were his second-best production of the season and with Love effective as a scorer, along with Irving’s penetration, James was able to get comfortable in a role facilitating the offense and finding others instead of carrying the scoring load himself.
“I’m 20th in assists all-time, so it’s a very comfortable role,” James said.
The Pistons trailed, 66-58, at halftime and the Cavaliers extended the lead in the first three minutes, with a 7-0 spurt, with two jumpers by James and a 3-pointer by J.R. Smith. The Pistons started 0-of-5 from the field but answered with a 3-pointer from Anthony Tolliver, a coast-to-coast basket by Caldwell-Pope and a jumper by Marcus Morris (14 points).
Love ended the run with a 3-pointer and the Cavaliers added a 9-0 run — with two baskets by Irving, another 3-pointer from Love and two more free throws from James — to push the lead to 87-69 at the 4:04 mark.
In the first meeting this season, the Pistons overcame a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter, but with an 18-point deficit on Friday, they couldn’t get the lead under nine until the very end.
“It’s good that we have that fight in us,” Caldwell-Pope said. “We don’t’ need to just pack it in and let the game go. We have to keep fighting throughout the entire game, even when we’re down.”
Irving had the Cavaliers’ first six points of fourth on three jumpers and the Pistons closed to 106-97 on Morris’ three-point play with 4:45 left.
But Cleveland’s Big 3 put it away with eight straight points: Love had a hook in the lane, Irving followed with a steal and basket, Love added a lay-in and James had a basket for a 17-point advantage at the 1:48 mark.
“I’m not angry at my team; I didn’t think we ever quit in that game and Cleveland played really well,” Van Gundy said. “There are things we could have done to stay in that game — as well as they were playing — that are possible to do even when a team is playing well.”
The Cavaliers jumped ahead with a 10-3 spurt midway through the first quarter — including a jumper and 3-pointer from Love, a runner by Irving and a free throw by James — for a 22-15 lead at the 3:59 mark.
The Pistons answered with a jumper from Drummond and a basket by Caldwell-Pope, who had nine points in the period.
Tristan Thompson (11 points, 14 rebounds) had a three-point play as part of a 9-6 finishing spurt and the Cavaliers had a 33-27 lead heading into the second quarter.
The Big Three showed how formidable the Cavaliers, who have the best record in the Eastern Conference, can be, especially when all three are contributing.
“We always talk about how it starts and ends with the Big Three,” said James, who surpassed the 26,000-point mark in his career. “Those two guys got it done and I filled in and did what I needed to do to help us win.”