With just under a minute to go in the fourth, the Pistons were down by five and The Palace of Auburn Hills was still at capacity. The Cleveland Cavaliers were inbounding the ball under their own basket, and the crowd was going nuts. One stop. Just one stop was all we needed to swing momentum. Instead, the Cavs did what they had all night - penetrate, great ball movement, and a contested corner three. Mike Breen Bang. Exits.
As I walked out to the farthest end of the parking lot (and I do mean, the farthest - like, I was near grass) the loss got easier and easier to swallow. While the final score of 101-91 may suggest an easy Cleveland victory, I can assure you for 48 minutes inside The Palace, a young playoff team and their passionate fans, both new and old, made it a fight.
It started in the first quarter, when the Pistons took an early five-point lead. Tyrone Lue's first timeout led to a Pistons video montage set to Prince's "Lets Go Crazy" and you knew that this night was going to go somewhere...new.
I say new because we really don't know who this Pistons team is...yet. There are many striking similarities to Pistons teams of the past - no All-NBA superstar scorer, a melting pot of personalities and above-average/All-Star level players, but this is still a new space for Pistons fans. This is not the Bad Boys, nor Goin' to Work. And the fans, for the most part, were new too. Look I'm not asking the bandwagon to get off my lawn, but let's be honest here, the Palace wasn't selling out like this most of the year. I hardly ever saw that many jerseys in the stands for the home team. And I sure as hell didn't hear that "DEE-FENSE" chant from the crowd in the regular season. I am happy that the playoffs have brought new fans in, it is the hook for a new generation of people to fall in love with this team. And seeing how they reacted to the Pistons was one of the best parts about last night's game.
And when Stanley Johnson checked in to the 2nd quarter, it was as if the homecoming king just took the court. Moments like these are the best part of Detroit Basketball. While Stanely has been the constant joke of the national media, taken to task over "poking the bear," the hometown fans simply backed him up and said, "good."
When he caught the ball on the wing in isolation against LeBron, the crowd went nuts - urging Stanley to take advantage of the moment. You could tell it maybe caught him by surprise, not expecting the instant reaction as he posted up and kicked it out somewhat sloppily. But once he settled in, and specifically after a breakaway layup to push a Pistons lead, Stanley skipped down the court toward the Cavs bench motioning to the crowd and we responded. In case anyone needed reminding, we're a damn good NBA crowd.
Marcus Morris & Kentavious Caldwell-Pope cemented themselves as fan favorites last night. Marcus with his playground-esque isolation play and defense on LeBron. It helps that Marcus plays like a Bad Boy Piston - he looks intimidating and the way he plays shows you that he is not backing down from any fight, a trait that screams Detroit in every sense. When he went to the free throw line, there were faint "MAR-CUS MOR-RIS" chants coming from the upper deck.
While Marcus reminds fans of the Pistons of old, KCP is carrying the flag for whatever these new Pistons become. He plays the best defense on the team, isn't afraid of big shots (sometimes his downfall) and is superhuman fast. When he gets an outlet pass in transition, it is like he's coming off the blocks in a track meet. You can tell the transition defense from the Cavs was often ill-prepared for that speed. Which brings me to the dunk in the fourth quarter.
I don't think the Palace crowd even noticed the fact that the Cavs hit a three right after this play. Everyone was expecting a LeBron chase-down block. EVERYONE. Anyone who tells you differently is lying to your face. When the slam happened, it was the equivalent of an atom bomb going off. My seats were in the first row of the upper deck behind the opposite basket, meaning I had a straight view of the dunk. When I saw KCP's reaction I jumped out of my seat and held my brother back as if we we're going to topple down (he was sitting down not doing a thing). I screamed at strangers, I pulled my hat over my face. I also was sitting next to two Cavs fans from Louisville. It was awesome.
Stanley, Marcus, and KCP got the love, but the two bona fide Pistons stars, Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond, curiously got something else - frustration. Andre Drummond's was limited to the free throw line. Whenever he stepped to the line, I would hear numerous people groan and yell at him, "just make your damn free throws!" Look, we all know it's a problem, but it's not exactly new. If you buy a car without air conditioning, knowing full well beforehand that it doesn't have it, and you drive around in the summer going "what the hell car!! Where's my cold air!!!" you've got no one to blame. Now, the turnover and lack of hustle back on D during a 6-0 Cavs run? Get mad about that. Free throws is the low hanging fruit, like talking about the weather at a work party, don't be that fan.
Reggie I am a little more concerned about. The fans were critical again of his 4th quarter play last night. The slip which led to a turnover late in the game being the main point of contention, after which he tried laughing it off. Advice to Reggie, this is the wrong city to try and laugh anything off.
After the Game 1 implosion, you could tell that fans were frustrated and I think most of that is because Reggie is unlike the prototypical Detroit star player. Instead of quiet, strong-willed, and "acting like you've been there before," Reggie is expressive, emotional, and unabashed about all of it. It's what makes him one of the more entertaining members of the team, but also makes him a bit polarizing. There is no middle ground for fans of Reggie Jackson, you either back him or you don't. As we trickled out to the parking lot, the common complaint I kept hearing was about Reggie's play in the fourth.
Regardless of the fan reaction, and the sting of the loss, there is one thing that helped me sleep last night (after fighting the hellacious traffic and unwinding from the long work week). The fact that this is all new. This was Reggie's first year as a full-time starter, his first playoffs as a starter. For the rest of our starting 5, this was their first playoff experience ever. No one would have batted an eye if Cleveland blew us out of the gym 4 games in a row. Instead, we're making LeBron James play 42 minutes in game 3, more than any other Cav. Basically making Tyron Lue not try to coach at all. And while every other first round series has been frustrating, the Pistons have competed and made this entertaining for Detroit fans and national NBA fans alike. What I'm saying is, this is all house money.
Hopefully, the Pistons can put together 48 minutes on Sunday and head back to Cleveland with one playoff win. Taking that win into the offseason would be the best victory of the year for this team. If not, these new Pistons are still walking away from this series with something valuable: new respect.