Playoffs 2016: 10 Questions
Questions? We’ve got questions. Answers? Sure. Just don’t hold us to them.
Here are 10 questions to monitor as the Pistons get set to open the playoffs – the franchise’s first visit to the NBA postseason in seven years – today at Cleveland:
- Will Reggie Jackson’s abdominal injury flare up?
Abdominal injuries can be tricky, often lingering well past the expected recovery time. It had to send cold shivers down Stan Van Gundy’s spine when he found out Reggie Jackson couldn’t play against Miami an hour before tipoff in game 81 early last week. But it appears the Pistons dodged a bullet with Jackson’s abdominal strain. He went full tilt in Friday and Saturday practices with no indication of pain. It’s not enough for Jackson to be able to play; the Pistons need him at his explosive best and that requires a healthy core so he can push off with either leg and change directions on a dime when utilizing Andre Drummond’s screens and looking to attack the middle of Cleveland’s defense. The good news: The injury doesn’t appear to be an issue as Game 1 tipoff approaches. But we won’t know for sure until we see the evidence. And if it the muscle strain hasn’t completely dissipated, it could flare at any point over the course of a grueling playoff series.
- Will SVG cut his rotation or expand it?
Could be yes. Could be no. Could be neither. “I plan to go to whoever I think will help us in a certain situation,” he said Saturday. “So I don’t know. Could that mean we only play seven? Could it mean we play 11? I have no way of knowing going in. I have in my mind what roles I think certain guys can play. But you don’t know how the game is going to go.” It’s a lock that Aron Baynes and Steve Blake play behind Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson at point guard and center. Beyond that, everything is up for grabs. Anthony Tolliver is likely to play with the second unit, but if the Cavs go small and use LeBron James to anchor the bench and play him at power forward, maybe Tolliver gets bypassed. Somebody will serve as the backup wing behind Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Marcus Morris, but will it be Reggie Bullock or Stanley Johnson – or both?
- Will Jodie Meeks get a chance to play in the series?
If you’re inclined to bet, wager on “yes.” It might not be in Game 1 and it might not be every game if he does play in Game 1. But Van Gundy clearly values Meeks, going back to making him his first target for his first off-season as Pistons president of basketball operations. He built his bench unit around Meeks’ catch-and-shoot ability coming into this season. Meeks scored baskets in games 1 and 82 and missed pretty much everything in between with injury. But he’s coming off a 20-point performance in the regular-season finale and he’s the closest thing the Pistons have to a consistent off-the-bench scorer, a trait coaches love to have in their arsenal. “This guy’s been around a long time,” Van Gundy said Saturday. “He’s played a lot of basketball. Nothing really fazes him, so I wouldn’t have a problem.”
- Can the Pistons afford to let KCP guard Kyrie Irving exclusively?
Yes – if Reggie Jackson is up to the task of chasing J.R. Smith to prevent him from bombing away from the 3-point line. Smith isn’t the consistent 3-point threat that Klay Thompson or Danny Green might be, and he’s not the jackrabbit runner off of screens like J.J. Redick or Kyle Korver. In fact, it sometimes seems as if the more difficult the shot, the more likely Smith is to make it. Jackson isn’t as accustomed to fighting through screens as Caldwell-Pope, though, and that can be as taxing as the challenge of staying in front of the jet-quick Kyrie Irving. But Irving is the more likely Cavs player to be a focal point of the offense and that calls for the All-Defensive team candidacy of Caldwell-Pope as the antidote. And that requires Jackson to hold his own on Smith or Matthew Dellavedova or whomever else Cavs coach Ty Lue pairs with Irving in the Cleveland backcourt.
- When the Pistons are within striking distance late, will they be able to close?
They’ve been one of the NBA’s very best fourth-quarter teams all season, Reggie Jackson’s late-game heroics the single biggest reason. But the playoffs entail a significantly higher level of intensity that will be a first-time experience for every Pistons starter … except Jackson. He’s got 30 playoff games under his belt – 30 more than Andre Drummond, Marcus Morris, Tobias Harris and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope combined. He even has 13 playoff starts on his resume. If Stan Van Gundy had to pick one player to hog all of his starting five’s playoff experience, Jackson – as point guard and offensive linchpin – would undoubtedly be the guy.
- Can the Pistons hold LeBron James below his career playoff norms?
“He’s the best player in the world,” Marcus Morris said Saturday about James, and even though he’s not going to win the MVP award again this season there’s not much doubt he’s the one player his NBA peers would pick as the guy most capable of carrying a team through four rounds of the playoffs to a championship. Over the course of his playoff career – 178 games spanning 10 postseasons – James has put up averages of 28.2 points, 8.8 rebounds and 6.7 assists. If the Pistons can slice even 10 percent off of those numbers, or make him a less efficient scorer (career .473 playoffs shooter) and a more mistake-prone playmaker (3.5 career turnovers per playoff game), there figures to be a ripple effect down the Cleveland roster.
- Can the Pistons dominate the minutes when LeBron sits?
It will be telling to see how Cleveland coach Ty Lue manages his substitutions. Will he stagger them to try to keep two of LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving on the floor all or most of the time? The Pistons are more wary of LeBron the playmaker than LeBron the scorer, but Irving is also extremely capable off the dribble. Nevertheless, the Pistons’ best chance to outscore Cleveland comes in the minutes James sits. With three days between the end of the regular season and Game 1 and two more days off before Game 2, Lue might rest James for four or five minutes in the first half and let him go the distance in the second half. For however long he sits, those are key minutes. The Pistons, simply put, must win the minutes when LeBron James is off his feet.
- Will the Pistons’ lack of playoff experience cost them?
Joel Anthony played for two NBA champions in Miami and was a part-time starter for the Heat. But if he gets regular minutes in the postseason, it means bad news – an injury to either Andre Drummond or Aron Baynes. Of the players in Stan Van Gundy’s normal rotation, only Reggie Jackson with his 30 starts, Aron Baynes (22 games), Steve Blake (49 games) and Anthony Tolliver (10 games) have appeared in the playoffs. The Cavs not only have an undisputed leader in LeBron James with more than two full NBA seasons of playoff games, they have essentially the same team back that went to the Finals a season ago. The difference won’t only be felt in the opening minutes of Game 1 when the butterflies will be batting their wings furiously, but in the game-by-game chess maneuvering and gamesmanship of players who’ll match up over and over again. The psychological stress is something the Pistons have yet to experience and how they respond – how quickly they can adapt and find a comfort level – will shape how competitive they can be against the heavily favored Cavaliers.
- Can Andre Drummond and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope consistently win their positional battles at the offensive end?
In LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, the Pistons are dealing with three All-Stars – and more than that, players nobody would be surprised to see winning Olympic gold medals for the United States team. Drummond and Caldwell-Pope are going to be guarded by the two other Cleveland starters, Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith. They have to give the Pistons consistent production. Caldwell-Pope will have his hands full guarding Irving, but to have a shot to upset the Cavs the Pistons don’t have the luxury of him being solely a defensive stopper. They need his offense to be consistent from game to game. That doesn’t mean he has to score 20-plus points, but he can’t go 0 for 7 from the 3-point line and not contribute a few assists or rebounds, either. Drummond needs to hit the offensive glass hard – the NBA leader with 4.8 a game, he grabbed just nine in three games against Cleveland – in addition to scoring with reasonable efficiency when the Pistons go to him in post-up situations. And the Pistons can’t afford the worst of his free-throw shooting woes – nothing under 25 percent, for sure, and hopefully closer to 50 percent in each game.
- Can the Pistons bench match the firepower and experience of Cleveland’s reserves?
Teams that are built to contend for NBA titles almost always have star power on the front end and experienced depth on the back end. Cleveland fits the mold. Richard Jefferson was a key off-season addition, a 15-year veteran with 105 career playoff games and 73 starts on his resume – including starting in the NBA Finals with New Jersey. Channing Frye, picked up at the trade deadline, is a 10-year veteran. The Cavs get Iman Shumpert back for the playoffs and he brings 29 career playoff starts, 3-point shooting and high-level defense. Even though Pistons reserves are older with more NBA seasons than their starters – at least in the cases of Aron Baynes, Steve Blake and Anthony Tolliver, not so much with Stanley Johnson and Reggie Bullock – they’ll be challenged to battle on even terms with Cleveland’s backups.