Cleveland took a commanding 3-0 series lead, effectively extinguishing all hope for Detroit to advance. However, Game 3 was the most intriguing of the bunch. The Pistons fought hard -- around every screen, for every loose ball, and every close-out -- and the Cavs came up with the most obvious answer of all time (hint: it rhymes with 'Pack-a-Snack'). More than the previous 2 games, we got a sense of who these two teams really are, now and moving forward in the coming seasons. Game 2 saw the Cavs, a below-average 3-point shooting team, hit a record 20 shots from deep. Game 1 was competitive, but as the first game of the series, it had an air of two teams feeling each other out. We learned a lot from Game 3. Here's a couple quick hits while the final buzzer is still fresh in our minds:
1.) Kevin Love is "back."
Remember the ground-bound, uber-versatile scorer from Minnesota? The one that had a knack for offensive putbacks, clean passes out of the double team, and deadly shooting from deep? Well, folks, time to give credit where credit is due. Kevin Love is back. Well, to be honest, he never really left. His court impact the past two seasons has really only been disappointing because:
a.) The league's meta shifted to a style that made Love's defense too exploitable.
b.) He struggled to hit shots away from his usual spot from the short elbows + top of the key (was only average from those "comfort spots" too which didn't help).
c.) Love has dealt with nagging back pain his entire time in Cleveland thus far, and due to a freak shoulder injury last year, we didn't even get to see him in the playoffs.
His numbers, around 18-10 with average shooting splits for a stretch 4, were underwhelming. But he's been asked to change his entire game on the fly to complement LeBron and Kyrie (not the other way around). Love catches the ball in different areas, has to make a living off of corner threes (which were not a part of his shot chart in Minnesota), and gets way less touches overall. On top of that, it's easy to forget Love is a tremendous passer. Since the Cavs have less motion in their sets, there are less opportunities for Love to find cutters out of the short elbows (remember Rick Adelman ran tons of nifty off-ball stuff around Love at the elbow).
But he has looked absolutely unstoppable this series, using every weapon in his arsenal with crisp execution, all in the flow of Cleveland's offense. He's killing the Pistons when they double team him in the post, consistently finding the open man at the right time. He's been hot from the corners, where the Cavs desperately need his spacing. And despite being slower than the American judicial process, he's found ways to score in the paint by leveraging his frame and using his dribble in crafty ways. It's a series tailor-made for Love; the Pistons can't afford not to play small-ball (they need either Tobias Harris or Marcus Morris on the floor at all times), and both Harris and Morris play hard but aren't defensive stoppers. Love's been getting torched when guys like Harris and Morris have taken him off the dribble, but he's actually held his own against them in the paint. He's been an undeniable net positive for Cleveland, which a lot of fans didn't know if they could count on coming into this series. Put it this way: if Love stunk or was simply uneventful these three games, all the haters from the last two years would have actual reason to call for his head this summer. But he's been Cleveland's second best player by a light year, and it's time for everyone to recognize that.
2.) KCP ate Kyrie's breakfast tonight on some huge possessions.
This was one of the match-ups I highlighted in my playoff preview for this series (here's the link, in case you want to revisit it). It's no mystery that Cleveland's offense relies heavily on LeBron and Kyrie pick and rolls. They use the screen to create a numbers advantage, draw the rim protector out from under the hoop, and cause a panicked rotation from the weak side. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has sneakily been one of the best one-on-one perimeter defenders this season, and I predicted that if he could stifle Kyrie's PnR game, Cleveland would lose a lot of juice on offense. For the most part, I've been wrong. Sort of.
Irving has had moderate success breaking down the Pistons' defense off the PnR, but it's been enough (due to Love's scorching start, Dellavedova's inexplicable hot shooting, and JR Smith's annual random breakout quarters where he's the greatest shooter that ever lived). A lot of Kyrie's ability to get into the paint has been partly a coaching decision, out of respect for Kyrie's finishing ability, and KCP's ineffectiveness at containing Irving. On the coaching side, the Pistons big men have jumped up to hedge on Irving to make sure he can't turn the corner or find a pull-up three. On KCP's side, Kyrie has simply been able to beat him off the dribble when he needs to.
Not the case tonight. On a number of crucial possessions late in the fourth quarter, with the Cavs holding onto a slim lead, they turned to a simple Kyrie PnR. Caldwell-Pope stuck to him like fly paper, Kyrie tripped over his own shoelace, and the Cavs turned it over. This series is all but over, but Kyrie clearly doesn't look like he's 100% yet. He's bricked a few more open threes than usual (leaning into them more than we're accustomed to seeing), is having trouble beating guys like KCP and Reggie Jackson off the dribble, and generally appears far less confident in his game than the destroyer of worlds we saw last year. It'll be interesting to note his progress as the playoffs continue.
3.) The 7-foot elephant in the room.
Midway through the fourth quarter, in tonight's tense game, the Pistons had to pull Andre Drummond. He's been their biggest mismatch for the Cavs, and has really surprised a lot of fans with a few deft jump hooks sprinkled into his usual diet of endless putbacks and rim runs. On the other end, Drummond has been dialed in, bringing a focused aggression we hadn't seen from him on a consistent basis in the regular season. Except for a few botched rotations, Drummond has combined his limitless athletic ability and his defensive talents to become every bit of the rim-guarding monster we expected Stan Van Gundy to mold him into (a la Dwight Howard v2.0). He's been an absolute wrecking ball on both ends. Simply put, when Drummond is in, the Cavs have almost no answer for him. Almost.
"Everyone on the floor right now, except for probably LeBron [sic], has a weakness in their game. But none of them has a weakness that makes them unplayable." Jeff Van Gundy dropped that bomb on tonight's broadcast after watching his brother pull Drummond halfway through the fourth quarter. Drummond was dominating, but the Cavs fouled him as soon as the Pistons inbounded the ball. It was despicable basketball to watch, yet might have single-handedly sealed the game for the Cavs. Drummond might be the worst free throw shooter of all time, and if the rules favor it the Cavs have to take advantage of that.
By the way, it's worth mentioning that if the rules ever do swing toward Drummond's favor, he will instantly become a top 20 player in the NBA. He's either improving rapidly or already that good at everything else:
A few other quick takes from tonight's hard-fought game.
1.) Lebron still can't shoot (random decent Game 2 aside). He's been struggling all season with his shot, and the Pistons were fine with leaving him out there to contemplate life.
Was fascinating to see the Pistons play LeBron like the '13 Spurs in Finals. He made some Js, but has to get full confidence back ASAP.
2.) When people say "X team has playoff experience and that matters," they're talking about moments like the end of tonight's game, where a completely botched defensive rotation for the Pistons led to Kyrie hitting a tough rainbow 3 to seal the deal. Granted, it was a well drawn-up flare cut off the inbounds by Tyronn Lue and LeBron set a great screen, but a "playoff tested" team doesn't make those mistakes. The Pistons will learn, and it'll be good to have these scars in the long run.
3.) Cleveland's offense might not get them out of the Eastern Conference. Like I said, this series is all but over. But going forward for the Cavs, they don't have a lot of reliable offense. Detroit is closing out well and rotating decently for the most part, but Cleveland is showing excellent ball movement and exhibiting "Warriors/Spurs-ian" extra passes to net them open looks. The only problem is those looks are going to Dellavedova, Shumpert, JR Smith, and Richard fucking Jefferson. I'm not sure that's a title-winning offensive formula, but hey, they've been hitting shots so far.
Detroit's season is one loss away from ending, but there's a lot to look forward to, and in the endless debate of "is it worth it or not to fight for an 8 seed and lose in the first round?" I'd say this series has shown that it is definitely worth it for a lower seed to chase the playoffs. Sure, the Pistons never had a real chance at winning the title, but they learned a lot about the strengths and weaknesses of their team going forward (particularly with the Harris/Morris combo and Drummond's future). That kind of internal scouting, where a team's identity is truly revealed, is only available in the playoffs where every team is giving their maximum effort to win. It's an extremely valuable asset that non-playoff teams don't have access to. The Pistons' playoff run might be ending early, but even if the Cavs close out like expected, it's been a hell of a season and there's a ton to build on.