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Cleveland – Praise them for the feistiness and fearlessness and no-back-down mentality. Give the Pistons credit for embracing the unknown as if they actually knew what to expect.

That’s all fine, as long as you recognize what they squandered, a prime chance to turn a strong statement into a blaring one. The Pistons swore they weren’t intimidated by the Cavaliers, and then for most of their playoff opener, they showed it -- and ultimately got nothing to show for it.

It was a fierce battle, the audacity of youth against the aura of LeBron James, and if the rest of the series is anything like this, the Pistons will get noticed. The Cavaliers scratched out key baskets down the stretch to pull out a 106-101 victory Sunday, escaping the Pistons’ shooting onslaught.

If it’s possible, the Pistons were thoroughly encouraged and discouraged at the same time. They had to be heartened by what they did, shooting 52 percent on 3-pointers and building an 83-76 lead early in the fourth quarter. But then the offense grinded to a crawl, Reggie Jackson took a bad technical foul, and James and running mates Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving gradually, calmly took over.

The Pistons were deflated, but emboldened. In fact, they were almost miffed when asked about extracting consolation from defeat. Stan Van Gundy was especially mad at himself for a lack of tactical adjustments, when the Cavaliers went to a smaller lineup and put Love in the middle. That spread the floor for James, who spread the passes to Love and Irving, who bombed away.

“I’m not really looking to try to stay close,” Van Gundy said. “That’s not really my objective. We’re here to try to win games and we didn’t get it done, and I think I had a considerable amount to do with that. So no, I’m not very happy.”

'We competed tremendously'

This wasn’t even posturing by the coach of a young team trying to grow up quickly. Jackson was the only member of the starting lineup who had ever appeared in an NBA playoff game, while James has played in the past five NBA Finals.

But the Pistons played like they belonged, until the end. With Marcus Morris and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope scorching on 3-pointers, the Pistons kept scrapping back. There were 17 lead changes and 21 ties, until Love hit back-to-back 3-pointers to nudge Cleveland ahead 94-90.

“We competed tremendously, it’s just unfortunate we couldn’t get a win,” Jackson said. “I love this team. I love that we fear nobody. Experience is going to be our best teacher. We’re gonna learn on the fly, gonna continue to compete, continue to get in your face and not back down to anybody. We think we’re one of the better teams in the league, and we really think we have a chance to show we’re the better team in the series.”

They had a great chance in Game 1, and I imagine they’ll duplicate the tenacity in Game 2 Wednesday night. But it’s impossible to imagine them duplicating 15-for-29 3-point shooting. In the first half, the Pistons were doing their finest Middle Tennessee State impression, hitting 10-of-16.

Then the Cavaliers cranked up the defense, something the Pistons are still learning to do. Rookie Stanley Johnson was as tough as anyone, helping hold James to 22 points. In fact, that was one of Van Gundy’s tactical errors, and he admitted he should’ve played Johnson more than Tobias Harris, who struggled. The Pistons also should’ve found a way to adjust to Love, who kept pulling Andre Drummond away from the basket, rendering the NBA’s leading rebounder less effective.

But for the Pistons, there was no backing down, which is mostly good, and sometimes problematic. With 3:24 left and trailing 96-92, Jackson thought he was fouled on a shot, threw his arms up and gestured several times, and was called for a technical. That’s the downside to youthful spirit. The upside is, Jackson drove right back, converted a three-point play and kept it close.

Competing, completing

Van Gundy hated the technical, but loved his team’s passion.

“I’m proud of the way they competed, proud of the way they weathered the storms,” Van Gundy said. “I think (Jackson) knows the message – you cannot get a technical foul there. I understand you’re frustrated and you think you got fouled, doesn’t matter. We don’t have the margin for error against this team.”

Jackson got the message, but didn’t necessarily agree with it.

“Nah, I wish I’d gotten the call, I wish they’d seen me get slapped on the arm,” Jackson said. “It felt to me blatantly obvious. I had to let them know.”

The Pistons let the Cavs and the NBA know a few things, including that they’re capable of competing in a high-intensity playoff environment against an elite team. Competing in these games is a very important step – completing them is the next one.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com/bobwojnowski

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