The Detroit Pistons have now lost 12 straight games to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Playoffs. Their season is over after Sunday night's game which concluded a four game sweep. While Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love can't boast a gaudy playoff history, the Pistons were relying on players who were even more green to this type of atmosphere.
Andre Drummond was in his first playoff series. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Stanley Johnson, and Marcus Morris were tasked with guarding Irving and LeBron James, and the spotlights had never been brighter. Reggie Jackson had been to the playoffs in Oklahoma City, but never before asked to carry an offense there. Tobias Harris had been a Piston for all of 27 games, and was matched up with Kevin Love.
Detroit wasn't expected to make the playoffs at all. Vegas put their over-under on wins at 34.5, and they won 44. Their reward, LeBron James and the Cavs. The result was a predictable four game series, but no one could say that the Pistons weren't impressive. A Reggie Jackson missed three as time expired for a one-point win missed, and there might have been contact. LeBron James found himself playing deep into the fourth quarter in each game.
As Coach Tyronn Lue of the Cavs said, "It was a good series. It was a physical series. They tested us."
Ultimately for the Cavs, getting out of the series in four games, healthy, while being tested might be the best case scenario. And for the Pistons? Lue had high praise: "They have a great team, and they put you in tough situations."
The first part of the quote may be strong, but the Pistons have pieces to put teams in tough situations for years to come, especially if the league makes a change to intentional fouls rules as they relate to Drummond. Reggie Jackson is competent to good running the pick and roll, and there are few guys better at finishing them than Drummond. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope emerged this season as a dynamite defender that can guard 1's, 2's and even some small forwards. Stanley Jackson seems primed to do the same next season. Marcus Morris is physical and can guard three's and fours. So while they haven't consistently played lockdown defense yet, the defensive potential is there.
When asked about his team's defense and whether improvement is imminent, Stan Van Gundy already seems impatient for the upcoming season. "Well, we better (get better). I've said all along that the big thing for us is internal improvement ... we've got to improve in terms of our teaching. It's not about finding a savior, it's about everyone getting a little bit better."
The Pistons will now go home angry, as Reggie Jackson complains about foul calls missed, and Andre Drummond answers questions about his free throws with frustration. But they'll also go home and think about wasted possessions. And Caldwell-Pope will reflect on finally sustaining some production offensively. Marcus Morris can feel good about the way he defended LeBron James.
Said Van Gundy, "We said this would be a great experience for our guys, and it has been."
This remains a team that will need to look for creation. It's not clear that Reggie Jackson can do it on his own, or that Tobias Harris will be able to complement him. The team will have cap space, but it's not likely that Detroit will be a free agent destination. But they are starting from a good place, and they are ahead of schedule.
Stan Van Gundy is energized. It's not clear how the Pistons get to a place where they are beating the Cavs over seven games, but team representing the Motor City isn't likely to shy away from the challenge. They made the Cavs uncomfortable in the four games they got this year. Time will tell if they can do more.