The Cleveland Cavaliers’ reward for finishing with the NBA’s best record (66-16) while shattering the previous franchise record for wins in a season (57) is a first round matchup with the dysfunctional Detroit Pistons. Cleveland and Detroit squared off in a pair of memorable playoff series in 2006 and 2007 but the two franchises have zoomed in opposite directions recently; the Cavaliers remade a substantial portion of their roster—capped off with the acquisition of All-Star guard Mo Williams—while the Pistons fired their coach, traded away All-Star point guard Chauncey Billups, fought through injury and chemistry issues and limped into the postseason with a 39-43 record, including a 12-19 mark since the All-Star break.
No one inside or outside of the Detroit locker room seriously thinks that the Pistons can beat the Cavaliers in this first round series. Truthfully, the most interesting thing about this matchup is whether or not the Cavaliers will be focused enough to sweep their overmatched opponent or if they will permit the Pistons to win a game in Detroit and prolong the series to five games. However, while it is fine for outsiders to say such things, overconfidence can be a dangerous thing in the locker room and the Cavaliers would certainly be wise not to “skip steps” either in their preparation or in the way that they play during this series.
That said, it is difficult to come up with objective factors favoring the Pistons in this matchup, which is a marked contrast to the situation when these teams faced each other in the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2006. At that time, the Pistons owned the best record in the league (64-18) and had just made back to back appearances in the NBA Finals, winning a championship in 2004. The Cavs had just qualified for the playoffs for the first time in the LeBron James era and they earned the right to play Detroit by beating the Wizards in six games in the first round. Most people did not give the Cavs much of a chance versus Detroit but after falling behind 2-0 the Cavs took a 3-2 lead in the series before squandering an excellent opportunity to win game six at home. Game sevens on the road are death for most teams—young teams in particular—and the Cavs proved to be no exception, losing 79-61. Even though Detroit advanced, that series proved not only that James could carry a team in the playoffs but that Coach Mike Brown’s defense-first philosophy would pay dividends in the long run, particularly as the team gained more experience.
In 2007, Detroit only won three more regular season games than Cleveland but many national observers did not believe that the Cavs were quite ready for prime time; James was criticized for supposedly not having a killer instinct and Coach Brown was not accorded sufficient respect for his coaching acumen. I did not buy all of that hype and went against the “experts” by correctly predicting a Cleveland victory.
Even when the Pistons were at—or at least near—the height of their powers in 2006 and 2007, they did not play quite the stifling defense that the 2007 Spurs and 2008 Celtics used to contain James and thus defeat the Cavs in the playoffs; the Pistons had great trouble keeping James out of the paint and he thus shot a much better field goal percentage against them (.449 in the 2007 playoffs, .442 in the 2006 playoffs) than he did versus the Spurs in the 2007 NBA Finals (.356) or the Celtics in the 2008 Eastern Conference semifinals (.355). Since James could go wherever he wanted to on the court versus the Pistons, he turned the ball over less frequently versus them than he did against the Spurs and Celtics, teams that sagged off of James not only to keep him out of the paint but also to disrupt his ability to pass the ball.
What does this trip down memory lane have to do with this year’s playoff series? The point is that even when the Pistons were a legitimate contender they never had much success guarding James—and this year’s Pistons are not nearly as good defensively (or offensively) as the 2006 and 2007 versions were, while the Cavs clearly have a much more talented and deeper roster than they did back then. The Pistons still have a fine midrange shooter (Richard Hamilton), a good wing defender (Tayshaun Prince) and their rotation of bigs—including Rasheed Wallace, Antonio McDyess and Jason Maxiell—can do some damage but overall the Pistons do not match up well with the Cavs, who won three of the four regular season meetings. Detroit’s lone victory against Cleveland came all the way back on November 19 and the since banished Allen Iverson played a prominent role, scoring 23 points on 8-16 shooting; that was during a stretch when Detroit won four out of five games–including victories over the Cavs and Lakers—by featuring Iverson and Rasheed Wallace in screen/roll actions that were very tough to defend: give Iverson space and he would jet to the hoop but give Wallace space and he would drain three pointers (3-6 from long range versus Cleveland in that game). Fortunately for the Cavs, the Pistons inexplicably abandoned the idea of using Iverson effectively, tried to turn him into a sixth man and later asked him to stay away from the team for the rest of the season. With Iverson out of the picture, young guards Rodney Stuckey and Will Bynum have to shoulder heavy responsibilities, though Prince or Hamilton can also assume some playmaking duties.
The Cavs have been a dominant home team all season, so it would be shocking if the Pistons win game one or game two at the Q. When the series shifts to Detroit it will be very interesting to see what the Cavs’ collective attitude is: will they be happy to get a split and then try to close out the series at home or will they get a sweep that could provide some valuable rest before the second round begins? I expect the games in Detroit to be hard fought but in close contests down the stretch the deciding factor will be that LeBron James and Mo Williams handle the ball and make plays for the Cavs, while the Pistons depend on Stuckey and Bynum, both of whom tend to make poor decisions in critical moments, which is a big reason why the Pistons have blown so many leads this season.
I expect the Cavs to sweep Detroit but game three and possibly even game four could very well be decided by last minute or even last second plays.