Auburn Hills — The Pistons’ long-awaited playoff return was greeted with a raucous crowd and sea of white rally towels.
For the first time in seven years, The Palace was packed for a meaningful game in late April.
But the Pistons’ hunt for their first playoff win since May 2008 will continue after their late rally came up short, and they fell to the Cavaliers, 101-91, in Game 3 of the first-round series on Friday.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope scored 18, Andre Drummond 17 and Marcus Morris 16 for the Pistons, who face a 3-0 hole in the series and have now lost 11 straight playoff games to the Cavaliers dating to 2008. Reggie Jackson added 13 points and 12 assists and Tobias Harris had 13 points.
“We didn’t make very good plays,” Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy said of the final four minutes. “I thought at 95-90 we had a wide-open 3 in the corner with KCP.
“I thought Reggie took some tough shots down the stretch. …He didn’t have a great night tonight down the stretch but the guys had 12 assists and one turnover. We didn’t make plays down the stretch. We went to the stuff we always close with and we just didn’t do a great job.”
Trailing 79-73 after three, the Pistons saw their deficit grow as LeBron James (20 points, 13 rebounds) started the fourth quarter with a three-point play and 3-pointer to give the Cavaliers their largest lead, 85-76, with 11 minutes remaining.
The Pistons clawed back with an 8-0 run on a pair of Harris jumpers and two free throws and a driving layup by Morris to cut it to 87-86 with 6:19 left.
Kyrie Irving (26 points) ended the drought with a 3-pointer and Kevin Love (20 points, 12 rebounds) added a tip-in for a 92-86 advantage, but the Pistons countered with an Aron Baynes layup and Caldwell-Pope fast-break dunk to make it a two-point game at the 3:56 mark.
J.R. Smith drilled a corner 3-pointer to give the Cavaliers breathing room and a 95-90 lead with 3:30 left.
The Pistons came up empty on their next four possessions, missing a 3-pointer and a pair of close-range shots before Jackson had a backbreaking turnover with 1:07 left.
Irving added the dagger with a corner 3-pointer on an inbounds play with 0.7 seconds remaining on the shot clock, pushing it to 98-90 with 43 seconds left.
“It was a great play drawn by (Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue) in the time and the moment,” Irving said. “With 0.7 (seconds) and the talent we have on this basketball team, we don’t necessarily panic in those types of situations.
“Execution is all that matters and we go out and … that moment is all that matters. Whoever gets the shot, we want him to shoot confidently and we all believe it. Luckily I got the shot off and it went in.”
Matthew Dellavedova (12 points) and James combined to hit 3 of 4 free throws in the final 33.5 seconds to ice it, pushing the Pistons to the brink of elimination and another early playoff exit.
“We’re all men. I know I don’t want to get swept by anybody. I think that’s very disrespectful,” said rookie Stanley Johnson, who finished with nine points and 3-for-4 shooting. “So for us, it’s how much pride we have.
“If anybody thinks that we’re going to lie down just because we’re down 3-0, they need to think something else.”
The Pistons were outrebounded, 46-32, and gave the Cavaliers numerous second-chance opportunities with their inability to finish defensive possessions, evidenced by Tristan Thompson’s eight offensive rebounds.
“We got outrebounded by 14 and rebounding has been one of our strengths all year,” Van Gundy said. “It’s been terrible in this series.”
Just like in the first two games, the Pistons matched the Cavaliers stride for stride throughout the first half, trailing 54-53 at halftime.
After going cold to start the third quarter, the Pistons found their rhythm and used a 9-2 run to take a 62-59 lead with 6:17 left. Drummond started it with a lay-in and added a tip-in while Caldwell-Pope hit a 3-pointer and Jackson made a floater.
But the Cavaliers wiped out the deficit with a 6-0 run of their own with a Thompson floater, Love jumper and Irving driving layup for a 65-62 advantage at the 4:53 mark.
Caldwell-Pope hit a 3-pointer to tie it at 67 but the Cavaliers began distancing themselves, with 3-pointers by J.R. Smith and Love and a Thompson tip-in to make it 75-69 with 1:45 left.
The teams traded baskets as Drummond had a lay-in and Jackson added a fadeaway jumper. Thompson had a dunk and Irving hit a floater to give the Cavaliers a 79-73 cushion at the end of three.
Much like the previous two meetings, scoring in the first half wasn’t a problem for the Pistons.
After James made an early statement with a two-handed dunk for the Cavaliers’ first points, the teams traded blows throughout much of the first quarter.
The Pistons went on a 9-2 run to take a 19-13 lead at the 4:35 mark on a Jackson 3-pointer from straightaway, back-to-back layups by Caldwell-Pope and a Jackson mid-range jumper.
But when it looked like the Pistons were going to pull away, the Cavaliers fired back with a James jumper, Thompson tip-in and Smith corner 3-pointer to cut it to 21-20 with 2:21 left.
The Pistons responded with a Drummond hook, Morris baseline jumper and Baynes tip-in to close out the first and maintain a 27-24 edge.
With the Pistons’ bench unit out to start the second, the Cavaliers started heating up from beyond the arc, taking a 33-31 lead behind three 3-pointers from Iman Shumpert and Dellavedova at the 8:51 mark.
A 7-0 spurt put the Pistons back on top 40-35 with 6:36 remaining in the half as Drummond had a tip-in and off-balance hook shot sandwiched around a Harris 3-pointer.
The Cavaliers answered with back-to-back 3-pointers by Irving and Dellavedova to reclaim a one-point lead before Johnson scored five straight on a wide-open 3-pointer and fast-break layup to give the Pistons a 51-47 advantage at the 2:32 mark.
But Irving and James got loose, sparking a 7-2 run to give the Cavaliers a 54-53 lead at the end of the first half, which featured 17 lead changes.
Irving started it with a fallway jumper before James took over with an emphatic dunk, split a pair of free throws and capped it with a jumper with less than a second remaining.