Heading into the 2016 postseason, the Detroit Pistons and Cleveland Cavaliers find themselves on the opposite end of outcome expectations. Anything less than ending the championship drought for a starving Cleveland city would be deemed a failure. There is a very good chance that simply losing -- in any round-- could alter the future of the entire franchise, including LeBron James. Detroit, however, is in the infancy stage of building a competitive team; win or lose, the net outcome is positive. The Pistons' young core owns one player with playoff experience in Reggie Jackson but the variables have dramatically changed. In Oklahoma City, Jackson came off the bench in a supporting role and in Detroit, he dictates the entire Pistons offense.
Time after time, experience has proven to be a valuable asset and is usually learned the hard way. Facing the Eastern Conference favorites in Round 1 should be a fantastic teacher.
If Cleveland thought the Pistons would lay down under the bright lights, they were wrong. The 106-101 Cavaliers win wasn't decided until the final couple possessions and the Pistons fought every step of the way. For the national audience watching Detroit for the first time, it was a great impression.
LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving led the charge but in very different ways.
Nothing the Pistons throw at LeBron James would be a shock to the superstar as he's seen it all. Almost 200 career playoff games will do that. True to his character, James routinely picks the best ways to impose his will and then proceeds to execute. In Game 1, it was the role of playmaker.
An aggressive James leads to not only good looks for himself, but just as importantly, his teammates as well. James made a point to get the rim and in turn, gave the rest of the Cavs open shots to knock down or widen passing lanes. A wrinkle in the Cavs offense in which James becomes the screener in the pick and roll puts the Detroit defense in a pick-your-poison scenario. Trap the ball and the first pass goes to James giving Cleveland an odd man rush in a half-court situation. Let the ball handler turn the corner and now your giving up the lane and relying on defensive rotations.
James ended up with 22 points, six rebounds and a team high 11 assists (with only one turnover).
Kevin Love was used sparingly at the center spot throughout the year but the move proved effective against the Pistons. Love abused Tobais Harris in the post during conventional lineups and, when playing the five, lured Pistons big man Andre Drummond away from the defensive rim. Not a good look for Detroit. Love finished with 28 points (including 4-8 from three point land) and 13 rebounds.
Kyrie Irving is best in isolation and transition situations. Irving took 24 shot attempts which led to a team high 31 Cavalier points. The talented point guard has a tendency to dribble himself in and out of trouble and in Game 1, Irving's creativity was heart breaking for a scrambling Pistons team.
No other Cavs player scored more than nine points.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is quickly making a name for himself around the league. Viewed mostly as a defensive stopper, he's now raising eyebrows with his ability to put the ball in the hoop. KCP finished with a team high 21 points.
When Caldwell-Pope decides to put the ball on the ground -- either in the half court or on the run -- make or miss, the possession is tilted toward the Pistons' favor. There is no one on Cleveland, including James, who is faster from end to end and, when KCP turns it on, it's a sight to behold.
Rookie Stanley Johnson had a rough end to the regular season thanks in large part to a shoulder injury suffered in late February.
You couldn't tell on Sunday.
Johnson scored nine points by way of 3-for-3 shooting from downtown. More importantly, he was up to the challenge in defending LeBron James. Making James work on offense is no easy task but the physical advantage he owns over most defenders doesn't apply to Stanley Johnson.
Taking everything into account, Johnson played as well as one could reasonably expect.
Drummond now and moving forward
Andre Drummond's first half was rather forgettable but he seemed to get stronger as the game wore on. In total, he finished with 13 points, 11 rebounds and a single block.
Numbers aside, he didn't have the impact needed for the Pistons to pull off the upset. Going into next year, that must change for the Pistons to keep trending upward.
The summer of 2016 should find Drummond becoming the highest paid Pistons player of all time. The pressure to perform will only amplify. The number of free throw tips, arm chair psychologists, and body language doctors will multiply before the ink dries on the new contract. This year has been a great stepping stone for Drummond but criticism doesn't cease upon success; it only gets louder. For a prime example, Drummond should look no further than across the court at LeBron James. Despite being a four time MVP, two time champion and Olympic Gold medalist, James is easily the most critiqued player in the league.
Drummond won't reach the level of pressure that James deals with, but if LBJ and his resume are fair game, so is Drummond.
Game one on Sunday might as well be step one in the Pistons' long term plan. You can't win the championship without making the playoffs and, after a seven year absence, they can finally check that box.
Building a championship team is a losing bet and even with the perfect plan, executed perfectly, a trophy in June is far from guaranteed.
Constructing a contender without a true, top 10 superstar, historically makes the job much more difficult. Every once in while though, there is a group of players that get off by Goin' to Work. Every once in a while, there is a group of Bad Boys that don't back down. This current group is far from a finished product but maybe that "once in a while" journey started on Sunday against the Cleveland Cavaliers.