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Cavs move on, Pistons learn lessons in first round

Cleveland reaches the Eastern Conference semifinals fully healthy, while Detroit finds value in its brief postseason run

POSTED: Apr 25, 2016 9:10 AM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner

NBA.com

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Reggie Jackson, Andre Drummond, Marcus Morris and the rest of the Detroit Pistons walked out of The Palace of Auburn Hills in the wee hours of Monday morning with their heads high.

LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and the rest of the Cleveland Cavaliers walked out with their heads attached. Various body parts were present and accounted for, too, and no one had a discernible limp.

But I think we were tough. I'm proud of the way we fought all series, I'm proud of the way we played all season.

– Detroit Pistons guard Reggie Jackson

Consider it two missions accomplished then as the Cavaliers advanced, the Pistons learned and both teams reaped benefits from their first-round series.

The young Pistons did as much as they possibly could do, within the parameters of a sweep, to earn respect and gain experience that will make next spring an entirely different proposition.

Pistons Discuss Game 4 Loss

The Detroit Pistons meet with the media after Sunday's disappointing Game 4 loss to Cleveland.

The veteran Cavaliers got tested, their taste for playoff basketball renewed by a scrappy rival that stayed close, played physical and pushed the defending conference champions right up till the final second of the final game. But they got all that done in the minimum possible time, 192 minutes stretched across eight days. Which meant: No extra games.

No additional opportunities for something to go wrong. No needless exposure to injuries. Cleveland got pushed plenty by the plucky Piston but in the end, they were efficient, they were effective, they were effusive.

Now they are 12 months and worlds away from the 2015 postseason that lasted so long but exacted such a high price.

Love was done after Game 4 of the first round, his left shoulder scheduled for surgery after getting tied up by Boston's Kelly Olynyk. Irving was gimping around like Uncle Drew portrayed by Fred Sanford, his moves and quickness hampered by injuries that would lead to his fractured left kneecap in Game 1 of The Finals. James wound up working with the understudies, Matthew Dellavedova and Tristan Thompson as surrogate sidekicks, and got the Cavs as far as they had a right to expect.

We're not satisfied with what we've done, but we are happy with where we are. Being able to move on from this series knowing we've got 15 guys ready to go for the [next] series as it stands today.

– Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James

Bodies proved brittle, dreams wound up shattered.

"At this point last year, it wasn't a good feeling," James said after Cleveland beat Detroit 100-98. "Even though we had swept Boston, knowing that Kev was pretty much done for the season or was going to be out six to eight weeks, whatever the case may be. It was a big blow for our team, a huge blow. And knowing that Kyrie was hobbled as well and J.R. [Smith] was suspended for two games [of the next round] -- it wasn't a good feeling in our locker room even though we had advanced."

Now?

"It's the total opposite," James said. "We're not satisfied with what we've done, but we are happy with where we are. Being able to move on from this series knowing we've got 15 guys ready to go for the [next] series as it stands today. Knowing the position that we put ourselves in.

"And knowing that what these guys have done when the cameras wasn't on, the rehab that Kev and Ky has put together throughout the summer, throughout the whole season to get to this point, is a tribute to themselves as individuals. ... They wanted to get back and prove to themselves they was worthy to be in this position once again. I commend those guys. There's a lot of guys who just don't come back from certain injuries. These guys have come back stronger."

Cavaliers Discuss Game 4 Victory

The Cleveland Cavaliers discuss Sunday's Game 4 victory over Detroit.

That's how Cleveland looks overall now. The Big Three are healthy and meshing as well as at any point since being brought together 20 months ago. Dellavedova and Thompson are better in their roles now for being pressed into service then. The Cavs have a coach who suits James, which means Tyronn Lue also suits the rest of them, and he has impressed folks both inside and outside the team with his coaching chops and people skills.

Even Smith has been behaving, providing 3-pointers and comic relief without any excessive antics.

"We all have that connection that we all expect a lot from one another, and more or less from ourselves," said Irving, who scored 20 of his 31 points in the second half when James and Love shot a combined 5-of-14 for 11 points. "And when we don't get it, we're pretty [ticked] off about it. I think that's what makes us great. As a trio, we're different as personalities. But we're coming together and clicking on all cylinders ... this postseason is what we've been preparing for."

This postseason is one too soon for the Pistons, but it was their initial knock at the door from which they'll profit next season. Their coach, Stan Van Gundy, was proud of how they fought to the end and prays they learned a few lessons about 50-50 balls and defensive rebounds.

Van Gundy probably caught a break with the sweep, too. He wouldn't agree, naturally, but if he had to watch Love or Thompson or another Cavs player snag even one more offensive rebound, he might have needed meds.

"We took their best punches and we kept swinging back," Detroit point guard Reggie Jackson said. "The only thing that hurt us is, we didn't get a win and we're not the team advancing. But I think we were tough. I'm proud of the way we fought all series, I'm proud of the way we played all season."

Jackson was cold-blooded in his willingness to take on responsibilities, right up to his rush up the floor with no timeouts left. He was fishing for a foul as Irving shadowed him, then finally had to launch an off-balance 3-pointer that barely grazed the rim.

Irving Makes Defensive Stop

Reggie Jackson brings it up court with a chance to send it to overtime and Kyrie Irving makes a big defensive stop.

Irving had the better night and better series and, at the moment, has the best rhythm of Cleveland's three stars. He's the one whose season started late, 25 games in, due to his rehab from knee surgery. He's the three-time All-Star who wasn't in Toronto this year, the "peaks and valleys" of his comeback forcing his focus off of February and onto, well, precisely where he's at now. He became only the second teammate to outscore James in a playoff series, according to Cleveland.com's Joe Vardon (Dwyane Wade in the 2011 Finals was the first). Irving averaged 27.5 points to James' 22.8 and nailed 16 of 34 3-pointers, including a halfcourt heave that beat the third-quarter horn.

There has been a fair amount of chatter already about how well the Big Three is playing together, their colors aligning like a Rubik's cube of pick-and-rolls, penetrations-and-kicks. But the real value of James, Irving and Love is the sense of security Lue, the rest of the Cavaliers and the other two stars have, knowing that one of them can rise up any night as needed, the way Irving did Sunday.

"That's what makes it fun," Irving said. "When Kev grabs nine rebounds in the first quarter but doesn't necessarily shoot that well, his effect on the game is still there and you still feel it as a team. We're all still in it together."

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

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