- David Thorpe, NBA
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It was just a few years ago that Detroit was dominating the Eastern Conference during the playoffs, while Cleveland was aspiring to. If that situation had not reversed itself the last two seasons, it has now. Detroit limps into the playoffs and clearly looks like a team that will realize wholesale changes are needed, and Cleveland proved to be one of the best home teams in league history (39-2 home record) while cruising to the overall No. 1 seed in the playoffs.
Cleveland's offense versus Detroit's defense
Cleveland has the league's fourth-best offense (109.7 points per 100 possessions), and Detroit ranks 21st in defensive efficiency (allowing 105.2 points per 100 possessions). Cleveland has made amazing improvements on this end of the floor, thanks largely to improved personnel in a few spots and a better system. The Cavs have become an excellent team at attacking their opponent from a variety of positions and off a variety of actions. Shuffle cut, post, double ball screen (with LeBron James as a screener). Four around one, with Anderson Varejao roaming inside. Ball-screen action opposite LeBron (who keeps defenders home around him). Staggered screens for Mo Williams, again with James spotting up in the opposite wing. The list is endless, and it comes in beautifully random order early. Getting everyone involved in the first quarter is their plan, and they execute it extremely well, so that all players feel plugged in and ready when it becomes the LeBron show in the fourth quarter. He's such a gifted and willing passer that this late-game simplicity plays well, as his teammates are ready and in flow. There is little Detroit can do, other than pull a big man off Varejao and put that extra defender in LeBron's box as often as possible. Making it tough on James to get driving angles (and forcing him to pass out) is the game plan, with the hope that his teammates will be cold.
Detroit's offense versus Cleveland's defense
Detroit sports the 16th-best offense (105.2 points per 100 possessions) and Cleveland has the third-best defense (giving up 99.4 points per 100 possessions). Detroit plays at the slowest pace in basketball, so getting easy baskets against the superior Cavs defense will be rare. But the Pistons will look for those buckets by pushing the pace, so the Cavs must race back and force 5-on-5 action, as Detroit rarely takes early shots when all five defenders are back.
The Pistons rely on spacing and shooters at every position to get their best shots, and they use ball screens to create driving angles for Rodney Stuckey. Richard Hamilton is a threat to back down Williams and Delonte West, with shooters spaced opposite. Cleveland will counter with solid base defense, trying to eliminate as many help actions as possible, which gives the Pistons' shooters more space and time to shoot. Detroit is the best team in basketball at taking care of the ball, thanks largely to a patient approach and a very reliable ball handler in Tayshaun Prince, so Cleveland will only rarely apply blitzes or exert too much ball pressure. The Pistons also have the size to really hurt teams on the offensive glass (seventh overall in the NBA in offensive rebound rate), so by playing a strong base defense Cleveland is best-suited for good rebounding positions.
Stuckey: Many people expected Stuckey to blossom once Chauncey Billups moved to Denver. Stuckey did improve overall from last season, but did not reach the level expected of him. And attempting to fill the role Billups often played -- a hero in the playoffs -- will only add to those expectations. He has not played well in April, averaging less than 14 points on 41 percent shooting from the field. And he's been awful in four games against Cleveland, scoring just 7.3 points (on 29 percent field goal shooting) and getting only 3.5 assists in 40 minutes per game. Stuckey has had some hugely productive games this season, and it seems likely that he'll need three or four more to give the Pistons a chance to win a few games in this series.
Williams: A match made in heaven, given his ability to shoot the 3-pointer (43.6 percent) and his willingness to step up offensively and make plays, which gives LeBron some time to rest. That is exactly what the Cavs needed. And it's not as if Williams has put up much better numbers than he has previously -- his metrics read almost identical to last season. He's a killer shooter and an underrated playmaker and defender. He's been scorching from 3-point range all season, never getting below 42 percent in any month. His 47 percent from 3-point range against Detroit will give the Pistons plenty to think about when they are discussing their rotation strategies after helping on LeBron.
Hamilton: Rip comes into this series as the go-to guy for a struggling team, as he's hitting 47 percent of his shots this month and scoring over 19 points per game. He's also feeling it from 3-point range (46 percent). But he's likely to draw lots of coverage from LeBron James, one reason why Hamilton averaged just 13.8 points against the Cavs in the regular season. Hamilton is a solid defender and should give any Cavs player not named LeBron problems. It will be imperative for Hamilton to play with renewed spirit, because anything less would doom Detroit before the series even begins.
West: A much-better-than-advertised defender, West is an excellent 3-point shooter with a real knack for knowing how to play. He's a streaky shooter, however, capable of wild swings in accuracy, so he can easily get ice cold in a series. But, as evidenced by shooting 50 percent or better from 3 in three different months (including a red-hot 62.5 percent in February), West can play a big role in Cleveland's offense. Like Williams, he benefits greatly from the attention the Pistons give LeBron, and West has made them pay, hitting almost 70 percent of his 3s and scoring 16 points per game. His defensive prowess will make Rip Hamilton work hard for his buckets and allow James to spend some time guarding Prince, who is less offensive-minded.
Prince: Prince has always been the voice of reason come playoff time, working to keep his emotional teammates in check and focused. He's very effective in this role, but dealing with LeBron must put those other duties on the back burner. Prince is playing well this month but has lost his 3-point touch (27.3 percent after shooting over 40 percent heading into April). He'll need to find that touch to give the Pistons enough points to steal some games.
James: He is the likely MVP, best player in the world, now a top-notch defender, with an Olympic gold medal. So, all that is left for him is an NBA ring. Because he might play 40 minutes a night, no one will be hungrier to end the series in four than James, so expecting him to be at his best is a given. Detroit will do everything to stop him, but LeBron is comfortable setting the table for others, and his teammates are good enough to put the hammer down.
Wallace: Simply put, Wallace had probably his worst season since he was a rookie in 1995-96. But he still has talent and experience and is capable of making huge plays to help the Pistons win games. Like Prince, his 3-point shot deserted him in April (28 percent; 35 percent for the season). He's an excellent weapon to spread the floor and make the Cavs pay for over-helping inside, and he made two of every 4.3 3-pointers he shot in the regular-season matchups against Cleveland. He stepped up his rebound duties versus the Cavs, as well, averaging 9.5 boards a game (highest total against any Eastern opponent).
Varejao: He started 40 games this year, 24 at power forward. He's a very consistent performer and always brings lots of energy to defense and the backboards. The overall strength of Detroit's bigs has helped neutralize Varejao to some extent on the boards and on offense. But he just has to hold his own inside and let his more talented perimeter players carry the series. And he's totally willing to play the role defined for him.
McDyess: McDyess has been a pleasant surprise this season, averaging basically a double-double in 30 minutes and making 51 percent of his shots. He's an excellent finisher inside and a solid jump-shooter, and he plays smart, tough position defense inside. He's a very consistent performer, but (like most of the Pistons) really struggled in three games against Cleveland, hitting just 30 percent of his shots and averaging only 5.3 points.
Ilgauskas: Still a consistent performer, Big Z struggled to hit shots in April, making a season-low 41.2 percent. He gets two-thirds of his shots from the perimeter, so hitting them at a good rate is crucial for Cleveland's offense to flow. He's a great space creator for LeBron. Detroit is hoping its outside-shooting big men (McDyess and Wallace) show well and Ilgauskas struggles. He's also a solid space-eater on defense, anchoring one of the league's best defenses by being in the right position most of the time.
Kwame Brown: Brown has seen his minutes pick up in March and April, to over 20 per game, and he's rebounding better than he ever has in his career. He'll be another body to bang people with but offers little on the offensive end.
Jason Maxiell: He is another Piston who was expected to take a big step forward but ended up taking a small step backward. Still, he brings tremendous energy and toughness and is capable of being a difference-maker in a game or series.
Will Bynum: He had back-to-back 20- and 16-point "explosions" earlier this week, but then he shot a combined 3-for-16 in the next two games. He is not at all experienced as a point guard in the playoffs.
Arron Afflalo: He is a solid wing defender and solid 3-point shooter (40 percent). He may spend some time trying to guard James.
Daniel Gibson: He dropped a bit from last season but is still a very good shooter from the perimeter and capable of getting to the rim when teams close out on him too fast. He has not performed well against Detroit this season, with eight points being his best effort.
Joe Smith: A heady guy who knows how to play, but his poor shooting from the perimeter might end up being a problem for the Cavs. They need him to make important pick-and-pop shots.
Wally Szczerbiak: If Wally is hitting his outside shots, he'll get some decent time. If not, he may not play much.
Detroit once had tremendous pride as a playoff team, well-deserved too. But the Pistons are not the same team, which was the case even before the Billups trade, and that pride can be extinguished easily. Cleveland is on a mission and plays incredibly well at home. Detroit's best chance for a win is Game 3, but to win more than once would be a surprise.
Prediction: Cavs in 4
David Thorpe is an NBA analyst for Scouts Inc. and the executive director of the Pro Training Center in Clearwater, Fla., where he oversees the player development program for more than 40 NBA, European and D-League players. Those players include Kevin Martin, Rob Kurz, Luol Deng, Courtney Lee and Tyrus Thomas. To e-mail him, click here.
Synergy Sports Technology systems were used in the preparation of this report.
Scouts Inc. breaks down the Eastern Conference first-round series between the Detroit Pistons and Cleveland Cavaliers and picks the winner.