The Cavaliers sent the Pistons packing in just four games, but it wasn't exactly easy. They were tested, and as David Zavac argued yesterday, Detroit isn't going to go away any time soon. Stan Van Gundy knows what he's doing. Andre Drummond, Marcus Morris, Tobias Harris, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Stanley Johnson got valuable postseason experience. Reggie Jackson got his first taste of being the leader and offensive catalyst of a playoff team. They were hungry, and they played like it. As Van Gundy himself said at the start of the fourth quarter, "We're playing with great intensity, great heart... we just need to remember to play poised."
Too often, they did not, but the intensity and heart led to games that were much closer than the margins may indicate. Only four 8-seeds have pulled off an 8-versus-1 upset since the merger, and given LeBron's stupidly good first-round record, there was no way such a thing was ever going to happen in this series. But that doesn't mean the Cavs weren't pushed; they won Game 2 by 17 points, but trailed by 2 at halftime. In Game 3, Detroit was down just 2 with under four minutes to play before ultimately losing by 10. Games 1 and 4 were decided by a combined total of 7 points.
Maybe they needed this brisk jog instead of a cakewalk. LeBron "locked in" a few weeks ago, and the Cavs played well down the stretch, going 21-8 to hold off the Toronto Raptors for the top spot in the East. But there's just no substitute for winning playoff games together, particularly when you need to execute down the stretch, unlike last year's first round shellacking of the Celtics. Detroit had the wing defenders (Johnson, Caldwell-Pope) to make LeBron and Kyrie work, a very good young center (Drummond) to keep Tristan Thompson honest at both ends, and scorers with chips on their shoulders (Jackson and Morris) to get buckets when they needed them. The Pistons were never a threat to win the series, but if the Cavs had lost focus, it could have been a six game series pretty easily.
The other encouraging thing was that people other than LeBron had their moments. Kevin Love was a bit up-and-down, going a combined 17-for-32 in Games 1 and 3 and 8-for-29 in Games 2 and 4, but rebounded like crazy (double digits every game) and was crucial to the Game 1 victory in particular. Kyrie was spectacular throughout, averaging 28 points and 5 assists on 56% effective Field Goal shooting while turning the ball over just 6 times in 150 minutes, but what will be remembered most are his back-breaking threes with a minute to go in Game 3 and at the third quarter horn in Game 4.
As everyone remembers from last season, and as fans in Oakland and Los Angeles can tell you right now, your first round success can be tarnished if one of your key pieces gets hurt in the process. Thankfully, Cleveland avoided that. (Wasn't for lack of trying, though - we see you, Marcus Morris.) All things considered - health, experience in crunch time, the kinds of moments that can bond a team, four straight wins - this was about the perfect first round series for the Cavaliers, both in the quality of the opponent and the Cavs' own rise to the challenge.
Who knows where this is headed, but one thing is for sure - Cleveland has a damn good start.