NBA Playoffs Preview: Cavaliers vs. Pistons

The Cavaliers are the favorites in the East, but can the Pistons prove to be a tough out in the first round?

A year after falling to the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers once again claimed the top spot in the Eastern Conference and are the favorites to advance to the Finals for a second consecutive year.

But this Cavaliers season has not been without its theatrics.

Head coach David Blatt, in his second season with the club, was fired in January, 41 games into the season. Blatt had guided the Cavs to a 30-11 record but was replaced by Tyronn Lue. The Cavs have since gone 27-14 with Lue at the helm.

Then, there were the trade rumors surrounding Kevin Love at the deadline, and LeBron James's recent speculation about playing with Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, and Dwyane Wade.

James, Love, and Kyrie Irving have been teammates for two seasons now, but it still seems like they're learning to play with each other. Through it all, the Cavaliers have once again earned the 1 seed in the East and face the Detroit Pistons, a franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2009, in the first round.

Ironically, the last time the Pistons made the playoffs, they were swept by a LeBron James-led Cavaliers team the first round.

It’s been a rough stretch for Pistons fans. Since 2010, the Pistons have lost 50 or more games five times. Led by Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond, the resurgent Pistons ended the franchise’s longest playoff drought at six years by earning the 8 seed this year.

Now with playoff basketball back in Detroit, can the Pistons make it a series with the overwhelming favorites in the East?

Cleveland Cavaliers (1)

Record: 57-25
nERD: 65.6
Championship Odds: 8.6%

Detroit Pistons (8)

Record: 44-38
nERD: 54
Championship Odds: 0.9%

Regular Season Series – Pistons 3, Cavaliers 1

Outside of a meaningless final game of the season, the Pistons went 2-1 against the Cavaliers this season.

Arguably, Detroit’s most important win of the season came back in February against the Cavaliers when the Pistons were under .500 and in danger of falling out of the playoff race. In the midst of a five-game losing streak, Detroit traveled to Cleveland where they knocked off the Cavs 96-88. Jackson led the way with 23 points, but all five Pistons starters scored in double figures with Drummond adding 16 points to go along with his 15 rebounds.

James struggled in that game -- it was on the back end of a back-to-back -- shooting only 27.8 percent from the field en route to notching a line of 12 points, 5 assists, and 8 rebounds. While James had a down game against the Pistons in February, Irving and Love have had no problem scoring against Detroit this season, averaging 29 and 24 points per game, respectively.

Jackson has played well against the Cavs on the season. In three games -- he sat out Wednesday’s season finale -- Jackson has averaged 20.3 points and 7.3 assists per game, both of which are better than his season averages. With Drummond, the Pistons can dominate in the paint, and they out-rebounded the Cavs, 55 to 49 and 53 to 43, in their two victories.

On the season, the Pistons were the second-best rebounding team in the league, pulling in 46.3 boards per game. The Cavaliers ranked ninth, grabbing 44.5 rebounds per game.

How the Cavaliers Can Win

To start, a LeBron James-led team has never lost more than two games in a first-round series. Over the past three years, James hasn’t even lost a first-round playoff game.

James has a habit of ratcheting up his play come playoff time, and this season appears no different. Over his last 10 games, James is shooting 65 percent from the field and averaging 28.4 points, 8.5 assists, and 8 rebounds per game. Now in his 13th season, James averaged 25.3 points per game on 52 percent shooting, to go along with his 7.4 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game on the year.

Since teaming up in Cleveland, James, Love, and Irving have had their fair share of issues playing together, but this year, the squad went 33-8 at home -- third-best in the league behind only Golden State and San Antonio.

On the season, the Cavs boast the league’s 3rd-best Offensive Rating (110.9) and 10th-best Defensive Rating (104.5). The offense runs through James and Irving penetrating the defense and surrounded by outside shooters. This season, the Cavs shot 36.2 percent from downtown, tied for seventh-best in the league. They've fired up the third-most three-point field goal attempts (2,427) in the league and made the second-most (880), which also marked a franchise record.

Their Three-Point Attempt Rate of 35.2 percent ranked third in the NBA.

Look for Irving and James to continue creating opportunities for teammates against this Detroit defense, which allows opponents to shoot, 35% from downtown, 16th best in the league. However, their Three-Point Attempt Rate against of 24.3 percent was the lowest mark in the NBA, so this is a battle of strengths on the perimeter.

Cavaliers Player to Watch – Tristan Thompson

Ok, I know. The most likely scenario here is James putting the Cavs on his back and carrying them past the Pistons in Round 1.

But let’s mix it up and look a little deeper on the Cavs' roster.

Tristan Thompson moved into the starting lineup earlier this week and will stay there, replacing Timofey Mozgov, as the playoffs begin. With that move, Thompson will be tasked with slowing down Drummond on a nightly basis.

The 6'10", 238-pound Thompson gives up about 40 pounds to Drummond, but in a recent interview talked about his speed and quickness as his advantage against the Pistons' All-Star center.

"He’s a big part of the team and he’s a big guy," Thompson said, "but at the same time, I got to do what I’m good at to make him uncomfortable just using my quickness and speed and trying to find ways to frustrate him. So, Ill be fine." 

If the Pistons have any chance of making this a series against the Cavs, Drummond will need to play a huge role. It appears Thompson will get the first crack at slowing him down.

How the Pistons Can Win

Looking over our first-round projections, the Cavaliers are a 70 percent favorite to take down this first-round matchup with the Pistons. If that seems a little low for a 1 seed versus an 8 seed, it may be.

On second glance, you’ll notice that each of the Western Conference’s top four seeds have a higher likelihood of taking down their first-round matchups.

The Pistons, who finished the year 44-38, went 16-11 after acquiring Tobias Harris in a mid-February trade and aren’t a middling 8 seed. In just his second year in Detroit, head coach and team president Stan Van Gundy has assembled a team with a young core that has much to gain from this playoff experience.

And if you’re to believe Jackson, they’re up for the challenge. When asked about facing the Cavs, Jackson said, "I want to fight Goliath. I think that’s how this locker room feels."

Well, Jackson and his teammates did in fact draw Goliath, and if they’re to pull the upset, it will come in large part due to the inside-outside combination of Jackson and Drummond.

On paper, the Pistons are average offensively (13th, 106.1 Offensive Rating) and defensively (12th, 105.5 Defensive Rating), but their rebounding prowess, combined with any advantage Jackson can create versus Irving are the keys to watch for if Detroit can pull off a win or two.

Pistons Player to Watch – Reggie Jackson

Jackson drives the Pistons' offense with the pick and roll between he and Drummond. Jackson acts as the pick and roll ball handler on 55.9 percent of his possessions, the second-highest mark in the NBA 

Jackson is dealing with an abdominal strain, but the team hasn't seemed too concerned over it. If Jackson is hindered by his injury, look for the Pistons to struggle if they’re forced to go with reserve point guard Steve Blake instead. But if Jackson is able to play a full complement of minutes, his playmaking ability will be critical to whether the Pistons can make this a competitive first-round series.

If Jackson, who averaged 18.8 points and 6.2 assists per game and shot 43 percent from the floor and 35 percent from three, can take advantage of Irving’s subpar defense, then perhaps this series can be closer than most expect it to be.

Series Prediction

As mentioned above, LeBron James has never lost a first-round playoff series. Ever.

Last year, the Cavaliers were without Love following the first round of the playoffs, and Irving went down early in the Finals. But with the Cavs healthy heading into this postseason and primed for a deep run, look for them to handle the Pistons and advance.

But if Jackson can be the playmaker that Van Gundy traded for and the Pistons dominate the glass, then the Pistons can steal a game or two in this series.

According to our algorithms: Cavaliers are 69.78% favorites.

My final prediction: Cavaliers in 5.