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Cavaliers hold off pesky Pistons to take opener

Cleveland's Lue employs rarely used lineup to spark turnaround

POSTED: Apr 18, 2016 10:19 AM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner

NBA.com

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— Career playoff highs, they called them, the 28 points and 13 rebounds Kevin Love amassed in the Cleveland Cavaliers' Game 1 victory over the Detroit Pistons Sunday in the teams' first-round Eastern Conference series.

Nothing wrong with those numbers, of course. They're fine numbers, proud numbers, numbers worth of a fellow's personal best whether he'd played in 50 NBA playoff games to this point or 150. But the fact is, in Love's case, they came in only the fifth postseason game of his career, which means any such superlatives -- while technically true -- are undercut by the sobering qualifier known as small sample size.

Here's another small sample size for you: The lineup that changed the game for Cleveland in its pesky opener against the eighth-seeded Pistons, the lineup in which Love was so instrumental in sliding over from power forward to center, wasn't exactly a conventional one. In fact, per NBA.com/Stats, the Cavaliers had used that five-man group just once in the 2015-16 regular season.

For a total of three minutes.

And got outscored 7-3 when it did so.

Love's Double-Double

Kevin Love records 28 points and 13 rebounds to lead the Cavaliers over the Pistons in Game 1.

Yet that was the group -- Love, LeBron James, Richard Jefferson, Iman Shumpert and Matthew Dellavedova -- head coach Tyronn Lue went to in the diciest moment of the night for his team.

That was the group that snatched back the game from upstart Detroit, playing as if it was too young to know better or too feisty to care in pushing the reigning conference champs deep into the fourth quarter on their own floor.

That was the group that worked because Love, already effective in more traditional power-forward ways against Marcus Morris and Tobias Harris, was even more so in the challenge he presented for Detroit centers Andre Drummond and Aron Baynes.

Five quick points to start the fourth quarter had put the Pistons up, 83-76, the biggest lead to that point for either side. That's when Lue subbed James back into the game -- a simple enough move, on its own -- but did so for Tristan Thompson, leaving Love as the Cavs' only official "big." The intent was clear -- turn Love loose as a moving target and draw Drummond or Baynes out of his comfort zone defensively -- but knowing it and stopping it proved to be very different things.

"What makes it effective is, it spreads the floor out obviously," Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy said. "It makes it really tough on pick-and-rolls for your fives [centers] to get out there. And when [their] five is out there ... even if you cover, then you've got our center away from the basket. We've got the best rebounder in the league and we're playing him at 25 feet."

Van Gundy said he'd seen the Cavaliers use Love as their center during the regular season. "Especially when they get behind," he said. "We knew it was coming. It was something we worked on yesterday, obviously not well enough. ... Yeah, they've done it a lot."

Not so much, certainly not like this.

James Layup

LeBron James cuts baseline, gets the ball from Kyrie Irving and tosses in the layup.

Cleveland immediately picked up its pace on offense and it was Love who found Jefferson on the right side for a 3-pointer. Next time down, the Cavaliers put on a passing clinic with eight in about 10 seconds, zipping the ball around and through the Detroit defense until it found Dellavedova, who hit a long jumper. James put back a miss by Dellavedova at 9:23 to make it seven straight points and an 83-83 tie.

After that, Kyrie Irving came in for Dellavedova, then J.R. Smith replaced Jefferson, yet it did not matter. The Cavs had their rhythm. It was 88-88 when Love hit a 25-footer. Next time down, at 91-90, Love lost control under the basket but kept the ball alive, and James found him in the right corner for another 3-pointer at 4:48. From that point, both teams played out the night in the roles in which they were cast.

"On those plays in particular, whether it was Baynes or Drummond guarding me and me playing the five, we thought we could be aggressive and play in that 1-5 pick-and-roll," Love said. "My mentality was just to be aggressive all night."

I thought he posted very aggressive. I thought he took his shots when he had them. ... I just think when we put Kevin at the five, that's a tough cover for Drummond.

– Cleveland Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue, on Kevin Love

Whether it was due to the truncated taste of the playoffs got last spring -- Love averaged 18.3 points and 9.0 rebounds in three first-round games against Boston before the Celtics' Kelly Olynyk grabbed his arm and yanked early in Game 4 -- or simply to the matchups with Detroit, Love had his chances all night.

For much of the game, he looked like the double-double, inside-outside terror who made his name and his numbers up in Minnesota. Morris and Harris aren't traditional power forwards, so Love was comfortable both posting them up or drawing them outside. He had 22 points and nine boards in the first three quarters, wasting no time in putting his imprint on the game.

"Just [being] aggressive," Lue said of Love. "I thought he posted very aggressive. I thought he took his shots when he had them. ... I just think when we put Kevin at the five, that's a tough cover for Drummond."

It might not be a lineup on which Lue can lean for long minutes as this series plays out. Van Gundy was kicking himself mere minutes after the final horn over "things I could have done differently" and one of those likely would have been a better adjustment to Love. (Going back to Pistons rookie Stanley Johnson, based on the young guy's three 3-pointers in less than 17 minutes, probably would be another.)

The Pistons coach had talked before the game about his reluctance to match when an opponent "goes small," believing he gives up his bigs' advantage inside. But a little bit of reserve power forward Anthony Tolliver, more mobile than Drummond or Baynes, might have helped.

And truth be told, Lue doesn't want go long without Thompson on the floor because the Cavs' defensive numbers are stingiest then. As it was, Cleveland used 12 offensive rebounds toward their 20-8 edge in second-chance points and Drummond was low-impact at 13 points and 11 rebounds.

James (22 points, 11 assists) and Irving (29 of his 31 points in the middle two quarters) made it a Big Three-dominant night for Cleveland in Game 1, though Love had the greatest impact. It's not likely to alter the Cavs' trajectory or the speculation sure to come if they don't win it all in June -- Love will remain the star most likely to be a) blamed and b) rumored for trades.

But for an afternoon, in the first chance he had after a long, impatient seat on the side last spring, Love put the lie to that stuff. And the wood to the Pistons.

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

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