With the Detroit Pistons (8) set to face the Cleveland Cavaliers (1), lets take a look at some of the more obvious factors as well as the overlooked nuances that might come into play.
Source: Andrew D. Bernstein
Before we dive into the matchup preview, what happened last night in California has to be acknowledged. One of the great NBA tragedies befell us: the Kobe-iest Kobe game of all time happened on the same night the Golden State Warriors broke the '95-96 Bulls' unbreakable regular season record. It was fascinating flipping between the two games. Before tip-off, the grand finale of Kobe's farewell tour held the upper edge in terms of historic value. The camera panned through a comical range of celebrities, from Kanye, in a Laker yellow "I Feel Like Kobe" sweatshirt (no, seriously), to Jack Nicholson, still wearing sunglasses he hasn't taken off in thirty years. The circus was in full effect, complete with Emperor Bryant relishing the 20 minute long tribute video put together for him, comprised of other hardcourt legends professing his grand importance and recounting his heroic conquests (none of which he needed reminding of). Then tip-off came around, Kobe was a horrendous basketball player once again like he's been since his devastating Achilles injury, and we remembered what this regular season's really been about: 73.
My buddy Kevin sent me two texts back-to-back:
- are you guys watching the kobe game the entire time?
- curry's going off right now
Over the last two years, as Steph and the Warriors have shot to the forefront of the NBA, there's been nothing more painful than tuning into the sold-out Broadway show "Steph On Fire" too late. It's been the most exciting micro-basketball storyline since, ironically, "Kobe, game tied, 15 seconds left." And with 400 made threes in a season, the 50-40-90 club, a 30.0 pt average, and 73 wins all within reach, every Steph pull-up from the logo felt historic. So I switched channels, but it wasn't interesting in the way that the Lakers' game was. Obviously the Grizzlies got blown out, but even if it had been close, it never would have had the singularity of the Laker game. I'll never forget watching the Warriors these past two seasons, but I'll probably forget who they played last night. I can't say the same for Kobe's last game. When I checked the box score, I had to switch back. And with absolute certainty, I'll remember not only everything from that fourth quarter, but also every emotion I went through in those waning minutes. I laughed at the pure volume of Kobe's gunner mentality. I admired him for playing 42 minutes without falling apart at the tendons, seemingly willing his joints to stay in place like it was nothing more than holding in a sneeze. And finally, when the Lakers were down two with 30 seconds on the clock, I got a little misty-eyed as Kobe dribbled up the ball. It wasn't that I knew he would make a three. It's no secret Kobe's been a historically below-average shooter with the game on the line. It's that I knew he was going to take the three. I suddenly understood Kobe in a way I hadn't before last night. He's just the kid that said he'd be the best player in the world, like we all did a long time ago. The only difference is he never stopped believing. When he saw how much work, luck, and sacrifice it would take to achieve that dream, when most of us turn to something else, Kobe never considered that he could be anything less than that. It never crossed his mind. The guy might not be "the GOAT," but despite the popular narrative, I doubt that matters much to him. He never broke, and that's all that matters. Oh, and that three last night? Down two with 30 seconds left against a Jazz team desperately trying to sneak into the playoffs? Swished clean through the net. Kobe wasn't the least bit surprised.
The Warriors broke an unbreakable record, by the way . . .
and I've barely spent two sentences on them. What a night for the NBA. Okay, let's get to the preview:
The Cleveland Cavaliers are heavy favorites against the Detroit Pistons in their upcoming first round series. Do the Pistons have any shot? What are some things to look out for that might swing the series one way or the other?
1. Kentavious Caldwell Pope's defense on Kyrie Irving (and JR Smith when he inevitably gets hot for 2 quarters).
Check out KCP's off-ball denial of Steph Curry here, as Curry comes off Bogut's signature pin-down screen as the "ball-handler" at the top of the key. He perfectly shadows him, gets hit by the pick, but has the motor and the length to catch up to an angle where he can still deny Curry the ball as he wraps around Bogut. The Cavs run a lot of similar action for Kyrie, designed to get him moving into the paint with the ball while his initial defender gets locked up by a screen. It gets the Cavs in crucial 5 v 4 number advantages, meaning the other team's defense has to scramble to cover multiple areas at once, leaving open space for the penetrator to operate. While he hasn't looked 100% all season, that kind of space for a guy like Kyrie Irving is death for a defense. If KCP can neuter this kind of P&R action, the Pistons can shut down a huge part of the Cavs' offense. If not, it could be a very short series.
2. Andre Drummond's defensive effort.
It's hard to believe the guy with that block is the same one that is constantly getting lost containing P&R penetration, getting outmuscled by strong post players, and attempting low-reward high-risk reaches on skilled ball handlers.
Yet more often than not, Drummond's defensive play is fundamentally poor and only sometimes spectacular. A lot of this is due to his raw feel for the game (he's only 22!). It is inexcusable, however, to give zero effort to at least contain penetration on the P&R, a bad habit of his. Against a Cavs team whose offensive diet consists mostly of straight up, no-seasoning steak-n-potatoes P&R action by either LeBron or Kyrie, it'll be up to the young big man to step up and at least make life in the paint hard for Cleveland.
3. Who's guarding Marcus Morris & Tobias Harris?
Most of this is going to play down to specific matchups. Newcomers Marcus Morris and Tobias Harris have been really effective spicing up the offense since their arrival. But one of those guys--whoever's hot on a certain night--will get Playoff LeBron defense, which until further notice, means a shutdown. So, how does the other guy match up? There is zero chance Kevin Love sticks with Harris on hard drives. He's just too quick for Love. So, assuming LeBron guards Harris, can Love guard Morris? As you can see from the clip above, a lot of teams are guarding Morris with rangy wings, and Love is not a rangy wing. But Morris generates a lot of his offense off of face-up jumpers, and Love is at least physically able to contest those kinds of looks.
4. How do the Cavs deal with Andre Drummond?
Tristan Thompson, who's been named the Cavs' starting center for now, has an especially interesting match-up with Drummond. Thompson isn't a great rim protector or interior defender. He's undersized for his position, but is a decent shot blocker. Where he really thrives is containing the ball handler on the P&R. Blessed with lightning fast lateral movement, Thompson is able to switch onto most guards. The problem with those switches, however, is that it forces a rotation from the other big--namely Kevin Love, who doesn't have a shot in hell at dealing with Andre Drummond down there. Drummond will either catch a lob and dunk it on Love's head or seal Love out for his only post move: a surprisingly deft jump hook.
So Thompson's greatest defensive attribute, his switching, is going to prove largely ineffective this series, unless Lue can come up with something involving Timofey Mozgov, who has been MIA for the entire season. If Lue wants to keep Thompson on Drummond? Drummond should take full advantage of the size mismatch. Thompson has never been an elite defensive rebounder, and Drummond has been far and away the best offensive rebounder in the league this year. Watch for how Drummond approaches this. If he doesn't eat up the Cavs in the paint like he should, not only will the Cavs dominate, we'll also learn a lot about Drummond's current level as a franchise player.
There's a Pokemon move called Bide. It involves the Pokemon 'storing energy' for 2 turns, before dealing double whatever damage it receives. If LeBron is a Pokemon, which might be true since he sure as hell isn't human, then this has become his favorite move since leaving Miami. It's no secret that when it's high time to turn it up, there's not a single more productive basketball player in the world than LeBron. Every other focal point of this series is irrelevant if LeBron, like he so often does this time of year, becomes death, destroyer of worlds. If Playoff LeBron still exists, the Pistons will get swept, no matter how well they play.
But the perfect storm is imaginable for the Pistons. Unlikely? Sure, but plausible. Maybe Reggie Jackson runs circles around Kyrie Irving and Matthew Dellavedova (whose defense has regressed), Harris continues his torrid shooting, Morris plays LeBron tough on defense, KCP locks Irving down, Kevin Love goes cold, and Drummond steps up big on both ends. It's possible. But that's a lot of ifs, and if LeBron is done 'storing energy,' it'll be a very short series.
Prediction: The Cleveland Cavaliers defeat the Detroit Pistons 4-0.