Before we begin: It's awesome that the Detroit Pistons are in the playoffs. After 8 years of Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva jokes (usual caveat: I totally understand the thinking behind the Charlie V signing and do not blame Joe D for it), which begat Lawrence Frank jokes, which begat Josh Smith jokes, which begat "aww, you think you can make the playoffs over the Bucks and Knicks, that's adorable" comments from the NBA Twitterati, the Pistons are back on the NBA radar.
And, in any good story, when something appears on the radar, havoc ensues.
The Pistons can beat the Cleveland Cavaliers in a playoff series. They "won" the season series already (regardless of the outcome of Wednesday's mere formality of a game).
LeBron has been playing great basketball since his latest not-so-subtle act of passive-aggressiveness, but the Cavs have suffered losses to the moribund Brooklyn Nets, the shambling remains of the Memphis Grizzlies, and the ashes of the not-in-the-playoffs Chicago Bulls in that time.
In a playoff setting, the better team wins most of the time, and the Cavs are a better team than the Pistons. But these late-season losses show us that the Cavs can definitely lose to inferior competition.
When the Cavs lose, it's because they shoot worse from the field (but not from three, which is interesting), don't rebound as well (and let their opponent rebound better defensively), and stop moving the basketball.
How can the Pistons manipulate the Cavs toward their losing tendencies? Happily enough, we have a regular-season game to look at as a blueprint: Feb. 22, 2016, in Cleveland. The third game of the season series offers the best example of how the Pistons can make the Cavaliers lose.
(The first matchup of the season, which the Pistons won, is invalidated by the fact that Kyrie Irving didn't play, and it was early enough in the season that the Cavs were still starting Timofey Mozgov. The second matchup of the season doesn't offer a good blueprint for the Cavs losing because, well, they won that game.)
Here's the box score for February's game:
What happened in February that the Pistons can use in April?
Andre Drummond was great:
Andre's been in some rough seas with Detroit fans for his body language down the stretch against Washington. I don't blame fans for having that reaction, they're happy and they want him to embody that happiness. A gentle reminder, though: Detroit absolutely NEEDS Andre to have a big series in the playoffs if they want to compete. Can't do it without him.
In February, Andre was great, putting up 16 points and 15 rebounds on only eight (8!) shots, thanks to going 8-14 (!?!!!?!?!?!?!?!?!!!!!) from the free-throw line. He was active all night on both ends and did a great job of not letting Tristan Thompson get the better of him on the glass. You know what? Let's pull up the tape:
The big thing I notice is how Andre's offensive success translates into his activity defensively. This has been a bug/feature of big men since time immemorial, and Andre is no different. However, it's not post ups that get Andre going defensively; it's his success at the free-throw line. Two minutes into the video, Andre makes both free throws, then attentively swipes the ball away when LeBron wanders into the lane. At 2:32 in the video (roughly two minutes later in game time), Andre blows up a semi-transition play along the baseline, starts a fast break, and forces a flagrant out of Dirty Delly.
Yeah, yeah, I've heard of Post hoc ergo propter hoc too, but after watching Dre all year, you can't tell me his early success didn't matter. If Andre plays that well on both ends, attacking the glass early and letting his offense feed his defense, the Pistons will be in great shape.
All five Pistons starters scored in double figures:
This is actually something that happened in all three games against the Cavaliers this year, but this was the first game this was true after the Tobias Harris trade. This game was Tobias' first start for the Pistons, and he defended slightly below adequately against Kevin Love (especially early) but you could definitely see how his ability to handle and attack would relieve some of the pressure from Reggie Jackson.
Speaking of Reggie, he went back-and-forth with Kyrie; we'll get to how the Pistons can use that in the playoffs later.
I also want to highlight Kentavious Caldwell Pope's play in this game; it was efficient (8-10 from the field, 2-3 from three) and aggressive (take a look at this shot chart):
When Cleveland starts Lebron/Love/Thompson in the frontcourt, they don't have anything remotely resembling rim protection. KCP doesn't have to go 8-10 every game, but if he's attacking the rim and forcing the defense to react, that's another axis the Pistons can attack on in the playoffs.
The bench didn't lose the game:
Which, really, is all they have to do. The only member of the bench with a negative +/- was Steve Blake. Stanley Johnson got hurt in this game (and has been fighting that injury since), and no other bench player scored for the Pistons. Aron Baynes grabbed a rebound every other minute.
The biggest thing was the defense they played against Cavs' bench. You cannot let the likes of Richard Jefferson and Mozgov beat you in stretches. A potential complication in the playoffs is going to be Channing Frye, who only played nine unproductive minutes in February but has been a key reserve for the Cavaliers (7/4/1, shoots four threes a game and makes them at a 37.8 percent clip in 16 minutes a night) since his acquisition.
Frye is the nominal center in bench lineups, but if the Cavaliers try playing him and Thompson at the same time (which is what they did during the regular season), I foresee Stan Van Gundy using Anthony Tolliver (who didn't play in February's game because of his knee injury) on Frye, freeing up Baynes to battle Tristan down low.
Lastly, the biggest takeaway from February that the Pistons can use in April:
Kyrie Irving was the Cavaliers' most productive player:
And if the Pistons can make that happen every night in the playoffs, that increases their chances of winning dramatically.
Let's go back. What happens when the Cavs lose? They shoot worse, they rebound less, and they pass less.
Which member of the Cavs' Big Three has the lowest True Shooting percentage this season? Kyrie Irving.
Which member of the Cavs' Big Three averages the fewest rebounds? Kyrie Irving.
Ok, maybe the rebounding isn't his fault or responsibility. But Kyrie's career has been marred by his inability to facilitate offense for players other than himself. Yes, he is a productive enough offensive player without that ability (which Fear the Sword has illustrated on multiple occasions - shout out to those guys, they do some great work). But February's slashlines tell the story.
In February, Kyrie won his matchup with Reggie (30/1/5/2, three-of-seven from downtown, most shots on the Cavs). Hell, look at the tape:
There's a good reason Kyrie gets the opportunity to be so productive: With the ball in the open court and a head full of steam, he's TERRIFYING! Reggie navigates screens so poorly (he tries to use his pterodactyl arms to bother guys after they're already past him, a huge pet peeve of mine) that Kyrie can get open shots seemingly at will. And, in a few shudder-inducing sequences, Steve Blake has to guard Kyrie.
But the highlight tape doesn't show LeBron's marginalization (12/8/5, 6 turnovers, 5-18 from the floor). The highlight tape doesn't show Kevin Love dominating his matchup with Tobias in the first half (17 points on 6-9 shooting), then barely seeing the ball in the second half and only scoring seven more points the rest of the way.
In a playoff setting, a Kyrie-Reggie duel (that leaves the best player of my generation out of it) can be engineered. Kyrie and Reggie can't guard each other, so there's a basketball reason to engage in it. It might even be a willing proposition; Tyronn Lue might want to take advantage of Kyrie's potential production.
But Pistons fans would be much happier watching Kyrie try to hang 40 on Reggie every night as opposed to watching LeBron vivisect the defense possession after possession.
"I don't wanna fight Goliath's little brother. I wanna fight Goliath:"
Upsetting a higher seed in a seven-game series is never easy. The Pistons would have to win at least one road game (and it's highly preferable to steal one early, before the teams get acclimated to one another). Only one Piston starter has playoff experience. No media (local or national) would go against the best team in the East in the first round, especially after the evisceration LeBron laid on the previously pesky (and currently frisky) Celtics last year.
But it's possible. Detroit is a dangerous team when they're on their game. That same national and local media are exerting a lot of pressure on the Cavaliers to succeed. Cleveland's current head coach has never been a head coach before January, doesn't have any playoff experience as a head coach, and is up against one of the few coaches to defeat LeBron before the NBA finals.