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Series Preview: Pistons hope to disrupt LeBron, Cavs' flow

Detroit will need more action from Jackson to knock off Cavs

POSTED: Apr 15, 2016 8:56 AM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner

NBA.com

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Cavaliers vs. Pistons: By the Numbers

Go inside the numbers of the Cavaliers-Pistons first-round matchup.

Draw no conclusions from clash-before-the-clash Detroit Pistons' overtime victory Wednesday on the Cleveland Cavaliers' home court. Five extra minutes or not, the last game for both teams mattered not at all and was played like the obligation it was. Both teams rested all their starters, providing yet another asterisk on Detroit's 3-1 season series edge that Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy dissected and dismissed as having any significance for now.

This is a 1 vs. 8 first-round matchup the way it's supposed to be: On one side, you have the heavy favorites focused on a return to The Finals, with the first three rounds almost as much of a nuisance as the regular season that preceded them. On the other, a young team taking its first tentative steps in the postseason. Given the experience the Pistons can reap from this and the teachable moments that Van Gundy will amass for training camp in a quick week or 10 days, it essentially is a no-lose opportunity for Detroit. Until, of course, it loses.

As impressive as the Pistons' improvement has been this season from 32 victories to 44, as well as its status among just five teams to beat both Golden State and Cleveland, they have too many nights when they leave one end of the floor unattended. The Cavaliers can flex plenty of seasoning from a year ago, particularly with backup point guard Matthew Dellavedova (Mo Williams has a sore knee for now) and center Tristan Thompson, and made a crafty late addition Wednesday by adding vetean Dahntay Jones as a 15th man, a little insurance for Iman Shumpert as a wing defender.

The Cavs will win if ...

Kevin Love does what he's done against Detroit this season (24.0 ppg on .511 shooting with 7.3 rpg, 3.0 apg and 9 of 18 shooting on 3-pointers). Kyrie Irving does what he's done in two appearances vs. the Pistons (29.0 ppg on .550 shooting). And James does what he's been doing to first-round opponents over the past 10 postseasons. This guy doesn't mess around in the first round -- his teams are 10-0, compiling a 40-7 record in games since he and the Cavs first qualified in 2006, with a 13-game winning streak that dates back to 2012. Now factor in the way James is peaking for the playoffs -- 28.4 ppg, 8.0 rpg and 8.5 apg while shooting .620 in his last 10 games -- and it's hard to see the Cavaliers letting Detroit off the hook.

Coach Tyronn Lue announced this week that Thompson would be Cleveland's starting center in the postseason, a smart move that carries the moderate risk that Timofey Mozgov might retreat further. Mozgov was a valuable piece last year until Golden State's small ball negated his effectiveness, and the 7-foot-1 Russian has lacked for confidence through much of this season.

Lue is new to this in his current position, but his greatest attribute since taking over for fired David Blatt midway through the season has been lightening the mood. Cavs fans at least can count of Lue to know how many timeouts their team has left.

Strip away all the peripheral stuff, though, and the most interesting stories might be written by Love and Irving. Both Cavs stars had forgettable 2015 postseasons, both feel things might have turned out differently -- as in two more Finals victories -- had they been able and available. James is downright dastardly when he has help and Cleveland's point guard and power forward are driven and in rhythm.

The Pistons will win if

This isn't meant as a jinx of any sort, but we would need to see at least one and more likely two of Cleveland's Big Three go down early with a series-clipping injury to tip the balance in this one. At its best, of course, Detroit has a multi-faceted attack that can shift to the hottest hands on any given night. Its starters all scored in double figures an NBA-high 27 times this season, and eight different Pistons led the club in scoring at least once.

Reconfigured according to coach and president Van Gundy's successful blueprint in Orlando, the Pistons sank a franchise-record 740 3-pointers this season, topping last season's 703 and blowing away the franchise's pre-Van Gundy mark of 582 from way back in 1996-97. Detroit was 19-6 in games when it made 11 or more 3-pointers. The Pistons shot a mediocre 34.2 percent from the arc, worse than Cleveland's middle-of-the-pack defense against those (34.5 percent).

Andre Drummond, at 6-foot-11 and 279 pounds, led the NBA in double-doubles and became only the fourth Pistons player to lead the league in rebounding. He'll need to be at his best if he's going to put enough pressure on Cleveland inside to draw Mozgov onto the floor as a physical counter. Otherwise the Cavs might be content to stick with the more mobile Thompson and stretch-big Channing Frye.

Compared to Lue, whom he coached in Orlando, this isn't Van Gundy's first playoff rodeo. He's got an 87-0 edge in postseason games coached on his Cleveland counterpart and a 49-38 record overall -- although his last two trips with the Magic were one-and-dones. The Detroit coach knows this is all about the learning curve, but if he has his guys close in late-game situations, Van Gundy's gamesmanship will kick in.

3 quick questions and answers

1. Who draws the unenviable task of defending LeBron James?

That will fall primarily to forward Marcus Morris, the valuable newcomer this season who seems to have nearly the size and nearly the quickness to do a credible job. After all, in two of the teams' meetings, James scored 12 and 20 points. Morris has said he expects a more potent King James in the playoffs, and he's right, but confidence and tending to his own offense as a way to make James work will be vital to any success he has at the other end.

2. Is Reggie Jackson enough of a wild card to swing the series?

No, he's not. But he is feisty and fearless enough to swipe a game. The Pistons point guard averaged 19.8 points and six assists over the final 10 games. In the process, Jackson managed to get under Oklahoma City's skin in a manner that could work against Cleveland, too, if he can back it up with smarter shot selection and his pesky work from the line. This is Jackson's postseason coming-out party (he was a bench guy for OKC in two previous trips) and he sounds ready. "I don't want to fight Goliath's homeboy or little brother, I want to go and fight Goliath," Jackson said of the Cavs. "I think that's how this locker room feels."

3. What stat could tell the story of this series?

Keep your eyes on the boards. Both teams pride themselves on rebounds, with Drummond a one-man wrecking crew while Cleveland goes with the bang gang of Love, Thompson and James. Detroit can point to its No. 2 rank in average rebounds (46.3) and 36-15 mark when grabbing more than its opponents. Cleveland counters with a rebound differential of 3.5 per game and the fact it has matched or outrebounded the other guys 58 times.

Making the pick

It's hard to see this as anything but a toe-dip by the Pistons into postseason waters. Eighth seeds ending six-year playoff droughts aren't supposed to advance or even pester Finals fixators, particularly one that has the game's best all-around player on another mission. Even though this Cleveland bunch seems to embrace the sort of drama an unexpected loss or two in Round 1 might generate, they're too locked in and too superior right now for it to come so soon. Cavs in 4.

Data curated by PointAfter

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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