Detroit — The Cleveland Cavaliers served emphatic notice on Monday night that the Pistons' occupancy at the top of the Central Division is temporary.
The Cavs, down four players from their normal rotation, unleashed a 73-point first half and proceeded to put the Pistons to rout, 116-88 at Little Caesars Arena.
“Unfortunately, for most teams in this league, there are three, four, five games like this a year,” Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy said. “They were great and we were awful and that’s what happens.”
Against a tired-looking Pistons defense, the Cavs shot 61.9 percent and made 11 of 17 three-pointers in the first half. The Pistons, who beat the Timberwolves in Minneapolis Sunday night and were playing their third game in four nights, fueled the run with 11 turnovers, which the Cavs turned into 14 points.
“I’m not upset at the guys; I didn’t see us quitting or anything like that,” Van Gundy said. “I think we got a little shell-shocked early. With them shooting the ball like that, it kind of broke down our defensive principles.”
The early spark was ignited by LeBron James. He came out intent on inflicting pain, scoring 14 points in the first seven minutes of the game, including eight straight that put the Cavs up 25-18.
“I just wanted to keep the pedal down,” said James, who finished with 18 points and 8 assists in less than 28 minutes. “We haven't had a win like this in a very long time. We come out sometimes in the third quarter and have a slow start and teams get back into it. But today, we just kept it going. That's a pretty big step for us.”
It was the Cavs’ fifth straight win. The Pistons have lost three of their last four.
“We just have been playing well of late,” James said. “We're in a good groove right now and we wanted to try to continue that coming in here today. They've been playing extremely good basketball, coming off a great win last night in Minnesota.
“We knew they were going to come out and try to give us their best shot and we had to be ready for that. But we just had a lot of flurries. We had a lot of flurries and we didn't stop."
Things actually got worse for the Pistons when James left the game. Over a seven-minute stretch between the end of the first quarter through the first four minutes of the second, the Cavs outscored the Pistons 23-6 on their way to a 27-point lead.
Van Gundy took the blame for that — he actually took the blame for the entire mess.
“I’m upset with myself more than anything,” he said. “Clearly we didn’t have them ready from a scheme standpoint. … They have a tough lineup to play against and some of the decisions I made, game-plan wise, didn’t work, didn’t give us our best opportunity.”
The Cavs were without Derrick Rose, Iman Shumpert, Isaiah Thomas and Tristan Thompson — all out injured. Their second unit consisted of wily veterans Dwayne Wade, Channing Fry, Jeff Green and Kyle Korver — who combined to outscore the Pistons for 26-8 in the first half.
Van Gundy was kicking himself because he put undersized reserves Ish Smith and Langston Galloway in bad match-ups against Wade and Fry.
“We got caught in some bad match-ups,” he said. “We were small and Wade hurt us. We should’ve been able to play better with James on the bench, but I didn’t do a good job of rotating players and getting better match-ups.
“We could go down a list of things I didn’t do well tonight. I never had any handle on that game, obviously.”
There were bad match-ups with the first unit, too. James had his way with both Stanley Johnson and Anthony Tolliver. And Kevin Love – 19 points, 11 rebounds in less than 26 minutes — continues to out-muscle Pistons power forward Tobias Harris down low.
“I never felt our guys felt comfortable on defense,” Van Gundy said. “I felt our guys were discombobulated from the beginning and that’s a coaching fault. I have to figure out next time how to be more clear and defined about what I want done.”
Johnson disagreed. He said they played the same defensive scheme they’ve played all year.
“The killer for me was that first foul,” Johnson said. “That took a lot of my aggression away. I mean, first play of the game and I can’t really get into him and get one that I earn. Now I have to really play off him and that’s what good players do.
“They figure out the your game plan and find a way to attack you.”
The Cavs starting point guard was Jose Calderon, who back in 2013 played 28 games for the Pistons. He’s 36 now and hadn’t played since getting 43 seconds of work on Nov. 1. He contributed 14 points and helped the Cavs extend their lead to 101-62 by the end of the third.
“It’s just one loss,” Johnson said. “There’s not much you can do about it, it’s over. The only thing that can happen is if you keep dwelling on the negative and let it bog you down. We know we are better team than this.
“I don’t think we are 40 points or 20 points worse than any team in the league. That’s a fact.”
Andre Drummond’s streak of collecting at least 12 rebounds was stopped at 16. He had six, with six turnovers, in 25 minutes. It was the longest streak to start a season since Moses Malone in 1978-1979.