8:30 PM EST, TNT – Line: Cleveland -7, Over/Under: 198
In a series that many initially thought could have been one of the more tightly contested of this year’s First Round matchups, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Detroit Pistons has instead been true to form as the former is on the precipice of eliminating the latter tonight at the Palace of Auburn Hills. With that said, even though this particular series has been one-sided, it’s been nothing short of entertaining; from a cavalcade of three-pointers, to Stan Van Gundy’s irritability, to Pistons’ rookie Stanley Johnson boldly claiming to be in LeBron James’ head after Game Two, the first three games have been relatively good theater, so much so that it’s almost good enough to make one forget that it’s sitting at 3-0 for the moment. Like we said, ALMOST. AS stated in the opening of this column, there was plenty of optimism that Detroit (44-38, 3rd in Central Division) would in fact offer some real competition to the reigning Eastern Conference Champions, particularly given the fact that they beat them in three of their four Regular Season meetings, including both encounters in Cleveland. However, as it’s been said over and over again “you can only take so much from the Regular Season matchups, for the Playoffs are a completely different animal”. Unfortunately, the young Pistons are learning this first hand. After returning to the postseason after a six-year hiatus, this franchise has positioned itself nicely under the guidance of Van Gundy, who does a masterful job of getting the most out his young charges, particularly given all moving pieces involved midway through the campaign. Promising Center Andre Drummond (16.2 points, 14.8 rebounds, 1.4 blocks) has flourished this season, while Point Guard Reggie Jackson (18.8 points, 3.2 rebounds, 6.2 assists) has become one of the more undervalued players at his position, with the acquisitions of sharpshooters such as Tobias Harris (16.6 points, 6.2 rebounds, 37.5% 3FG) and Marcus Morris (14.1 points, 5.1 rebounds, 36.2% 3FG) proving excellent fits for the veteran coach’s wide-open offensive gameplan. Even youngsters such as Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (14.5 points, 3.7 rebounds, 1.4 steals) and the aforementioned Johnson (8.1 points, 4.2 rebounds, 1.6 assists) have the look of longtime contributors, giving this group the appearance of a team that certainly looks to be a fixture in the East for years to come. And with all that said, this series has become little more than a vital learning experience. Despite shooting a solid 47.6% from the field, including 36.2% from beyond the arc in this series, have otherwise proved unable to slow down the Cavs, who themselves has been on fire from beyond the arc (which we’ll get to in a bit). Unfortunately, Detroit hasn’t been able to take advantage of one of their biggest mismatches, Drummond. The 22-year old big man led the league in rebounding, but has seen that figure nearly cut in half through the first three games of this series, averaging 8.3 boards, which has been a major reason in his team’s struggles. On the whole, Van Gundy’s charges have been pushed around on the glass despite owning a significant size advantage, bested by 4.7 rebounds per game thus far. Indeed, very few would have predicted that Cleveland would have thirty offensive rebounds through three games and Detroit would have just twenty-one. Case in point; in Game Three’s 101-91 loss at home, the visitors outrebounded the hosts by a commanding fourteen boards, including 12-5 on the offensive glass. Hell, Tristan Thompson alone had eight of the offensive variety. And though it’s probably too late to change the course of this series, the Pistons must find a way to relegate their Central Division nemesis to one shot, for giving the likes of LeBron and Co. continuous second-chance equates to playing with fire. A more diverse offensive attack couldn’t hurt either, for after splurging on threes earlier in the series, the well has appeared to run dry at this point; the home side could only muster six of their twenty-three attempts from the perimeter in Game Three (26.1%), as they were outscored eighteen points in that regard. As we stated earlier, this is definitely a learning experience for the young Pistons.
Meanwhile, after a long season that was ripe with storylines, none more so than an abrupt coaching change, the Cavaliers (57-25, 1st in Central Division) once again look like the class of the Eastern Conference, as they have countered every blow that their opponent has managed to throw their way thus far. Upon watching the first three games of this series, one can’t help but wonder just how in the hell Detroit managed to beat them three times during the Regular Season, but then again, these are the Playoffs, folks, where the stars shine the brightest. And to this point, that has been the decisive factor. Simply put, Cleveland’s Big Three of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love has been nothing short of dominant in this series, with the triumvirate accounting for a whopping 70.6 of their team’s 104.7 points per game, or in other words 67.4% of that figure. James has been as advertised, registering 23.0 points on 49.2% shooting from the field, along with 8.3 rebounds, 7.0 assists, and 1.7 steals in 41.2 minutes of play. And though Stan Van Gundy has publicly lamented the Officials’ collective hesitation to penalize the four-time MVP for “over-aggressiveness” on the offensive end, it’s not like Detroit has been able to do anything at all to deter him from doing so. And as for the aforementioned Johnson claiming to be in James’ head, and criticizing his trash-talking prowess (REALLY?!?!?), we’re not going to give that anymore than a meh. However, LeBron is LeBron. He’s going to get his. The bigger story is impact that the Cavaliers NOT named LeBron have made, particularly Irving and Love. The former is averaging a team-high 26.3 points thus far on 46.8% shooting from the field, while catching fire from three, netting 12-of-23 attempts (52.2%), along with 2.0 rebounds, 4.7 assists, and 1.3 steals. Clearly, Head Coach Tyronn Lue has found greater value in allowing the young Point Guard to play more off the ball, with James operating in a more Point Forward role. However, nothing should be more encouraging for Cavs’ Fans than the reintroduction of Love, whose absence from last year’s failed run in the Finals weighed heavily on the Franchise throughout the Offseason. Love separated his shoulder early in his team’s First Round Series with Boston last year, and went on to miss the rest of the postseason, forcing the sometimes forgotten Third Wheel of Cleveland’s triumvirate to watch helplessly from the Bench. Even though they managed to get to the Finals, one can’t help but think that he may have been able to make a difference against Golden State in that fateful six-game defeat. Through the first three games of this series, the eighth-year veteran has reminded us all why he was such a potent weapon for so many years in Minnesota, averaging 21.3 points on 47.8% shooting from the field, including 44.4% from beyond the arc, along with 11.7 rebounds, and 1.7 assists. At times during his career with Cleveland, he has visibly struggled to play alongside James and Irving, oftentimes being relegated to jacking up wanton three-pointers instead of playing closer to the rim, where his skills in the post, and more prominently on the glass, can be put to better use. To his credit, Lue has utilized both inside and outside, with the big man’s versatility paying huge dividends. The fact that Love has been able to ward of the aforementioned Drummond while the Cavs resort to smaller lineups has been huge for this team. In short, they’re sacrificing nothing when going small. Love, along with Tristan Thompson have done a tremendous job of keeping the Pistons off the glass, with the latter accounting for thirteen offensive boards in the series, giving a team that really doesn’t extra opportunities on the offensive end, but will gladly make their opponent pay for them.