Pistons will need to be their best against Cavs

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

Auburn Hills — On paper, the Cleveland Cavaliers have a decided advantage over the Pistons.

From postseason experience to several go-to scorers to outside shooting, the Cavaliers present matchup problems all over.

Maybe point guard Reggie Jackson’s biblical metaphor of the series — No. 8 Detroit vs. No. 1 Cleveland — to David and Goliath wasn’t so far off base.

“David may not have wanted to fight Goliath, but I don’t want to fight Goliath’s homeboy or little brother — I want to go and fight Goliath,” Jackson said of facing the defending Eastern Conference champions in the first round.

For the Pistons to have a chance to win the best-of-seven series, they’ll have to repeat some of their better stretches this season, including a five-game string that started with a road victory over the Cavaliers on Feb. 22.

All five starters scored in double figures, with Jackson leading the way with 23.

Pistons have 4-1 odds to upset Cavaliers

It’ll take a similar formula to avoid a quick exit in the series. Such as ...

Stop LeBron

For any series, LeBron James will be focal point for both teams, but the Pistons will be better equipped than most to try to guard the two-time Finals MVP. Marcus Morris held James to 5-for-18 shooting, six turnovers and 12 points Feb. 22.

The key for the Pistons is keeping James out of the lane and making him settle for contested outside shots. Morris has the size and speed to do it. What’s more, Tobias Harris can move over and not be overmatched. Rookie Stanley Johnson also is strong enough to put a body on James and keep him from driving.

Coach Stan Van Gundy doesn’t take credit for doing anything special against James. His philosophy is the Pistons will try to defend the best they can and then hope James has an off night.

Get it to Drummond

The one position where the Pistons have a decided advantage is center — Andre Drummond over Tristan Thompson. Jackson might need to force-feed the post to Drummond early to get him involved and see how the Cavaliers are going to defend it.

What will be critical is the role Drummond plays late in games. Will Van Gundy choose to keep Drummond on the floor or bench him because of his inept free-throw shooting? If so, backup Aron Baynes becomes a factor.

Keep the focus

The Pistons have to raise their focus significantly to avoid a sweep. They’ve had several instances of defensive malaise and offensive lulls that cost them against lesser opponents.

Drummond can’t miss assignments and needs to become a better rim protector for longer stretches. Jackson will have to find the sweet spot between distributing, probing and shooting to get all of the starters involved in the offense.

The bench production has been up and down, but the Pistons need consistent contributions from a couple reserves. Van Gundy said he will shorten the bench, meaning Johnson, Reggie Bullock or Darrun Hilliard will vie for one spot.

Play with house money

The Pistons can adopt a carefree attitude because they are the overwhelming underdogs. If they can take one of the first two games in Cleveland, it can provide confidence they can build upon.

Even though the Pistons won three of four during the season, some of that is fool’s gold. None of the starters for either team played in Wednesday’s finale, and Kyrie Irving missed the first meeting.

The Pistons have shown an ability to bounce back well after some lopsided losses, but in a seven-game series, they have to avoid taking an early knockout blow.

Learn from experience

Even if they don’t win the series, the Pistons will look to get playoff experience — just three players in the rotation have significant playoff experience — to build toward a deeper run next year.

Winning a game or two could allow them to shine in the national spotlight and pay dividends down the road.

“Moral victories do happen,” ESPN analyst Jalen Rose said. “It’s a process — if you’re going to be a playoff team, then consistently become a playoff team. Any time you can get that experience, (it’s good).

“(The Pistons) have what it takes to win a couple games, especially if the Cavs aren’t making 3-point shots.”