Cleveland — The Pistons knew what was coming.
They just couldn’t do a lot to stop it.
In their first playoff appearance since 2009, the Pistons had leads at halftime, after the third quarter and had a seven-point margin — their largest of the game — but couldn’t hold on down the stretch.
The Cleveland Cavaliers’ Big Three of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love combined for 81 points and outscored the Pistons’ starting five, taking a 106-101 victory in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference first-round series.
The Pistons quelled the capacity crowd at Quicken Loans Arena for the first three quarters with their hot shooting, but the defending Eastern Conference champions surged in the fourth quarter.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope had 21 points, Marcus Morris scored 19 of his 20 points in the first half and Andre Drummond added 13 points and 11 rebounds for the Pistons, who shot 65 percent (11-of-17) in the second quarter and converted 10-of-16 3-pointers (63 percent) in the first half.
Kyrie Irving finished with 31 points, Love 28 points and 13 rebounds and James 22 points, six rebounds and 11 assists.
“We just could never get any of their three main guys under control,” coach Stan Van Gundy said. “Then we went through a stretch in the game where I didn’t think we got great shots.”
The Big Three accounted for 17 of the Cavs’ final 18 points of the game, including a pair of 3-pointers by Love.
“I thought he posted very aggressively. I thought he took his shots when he had them,” Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said. “He made some big shots for us. When we put Kevin at (center), that’s a tough cover for Drummond to try to get out to Kevin when he’s picking-and-popping.”
Love’s final 3-pointer, with 4:51 left, pushed the lead to 94-90, which ignited a 7-2 spurt that made it 98-92 at the 2:58 mark. Reggie Jackson (17 points and seven assists) responded with a three-point play, cut the deficit to three. But Irvin converted a drive to make it 100-95.
The Pistons didn’t get closer the rest of the way.
“There are no positives; we lost,” said Drummond, who had nine points and seven rebounds in the third quarter.
Entering the fourth period, the Pistons led, 78-76, and pushed it to 83-76 after a baseline jumper by Tobias Harris (nine points and 10 rebounds) and a 3-pointer by Reggie Bullock, for their largest advantage, 83-76.
The game turned from there, as James, who was resting to start the quarter, returned and helped spark a critical 7-0 run to erase the deficit. Richard Jefferson hit a 3-pointer, Matthew Dellavedova added a jumper and James had a tip-in to tie it at 83.
The Cavs didn’t trail the rest of the way.
Jackson tried to keep the Pistons in it, tying it at 88 with a 3-pointer, but Love answered with a 3-pointer. Jackson added a reverse lay-in to get within one with 5:18 left, but Love hit another 3-pointer.
That ignited another 7-2 spurt — including an ill-timed technical foul by Jackson, who argued a non-call — and the lead ballooned to 98-92.
“We played a good team; they came out with a win,” Jackson said. “We feel like we gave them too many offensive rebounds, too many second-chance opportunities and we of course lost the turnover battle.
“But we like our chances. We’re a confident team. We’ll go back, figure some things out, watch film, practice again and be ready for Wednesday.”
The Pistons led, 58-53, entering the third quarter and held firm, despite a quick spurt from Irving, who started the period with eight straight points, including a pair of 3-pointers. Harris stopped the run with a 3-pointer, tying it at 61.
Drummond, who had been stifled in the first half for only two points and four rebounds, bounced back in the third quarter with nine points and seven boards. His back-to-back baskets gave the Pistons a two-point lead, before the Cavs responded with seven straight points, including fadeaways from Love and Irving and a 3-pointer by J.R. Smith (nine points).
The Cavs were able to turn the tables and clamp down on the Pistons’ shooters, enabling the comeback.
“We emphasized at halftime that we have to be more physical and we have to be more aggressive,” Lue said.
The Pistons responded with their own 9-2 spurt, including two more baskets by Drummond and a 3-pointer by Stanley Johnson (nine points), for a 76-74 advantage. They finished the 7-2 spurt to end the period and take a 78-76 lead into the fourth.