Many expected a quick blowout in the East’s 1-8 matchup, but while the Cavaliers eventually tightened the clamps and captured Game 1 at home, the lead-up featured a tight game full of interesting tactical nuggets from both teams. The scoreline remained close in part due to some unsustainably good shooting from the Pistons, particularly from beyond the arc, but many of these were good shots generated through a strong game plan from Stan Van Gundy – until it all fell apart down the stretch.
The forward spots were always sure to be a point of interest in this series, and the opening contest was a chess match here. Cleveland fiddled with both offensive and defensive matchups for Kevin Love early and with great success over the course of the game, leading to a playoff career-high of 28 points from Love in an active, effective performance. Both Tobias Harris and Marcus Morris struggled with Love, whether bullied down low on the block or chasing him around the perimeter. Morris was able to keep things close early with a number of tough makes of his own, but his offense dried up in the second half as Cleveland continued to funnel good looks through Love.
How Van Gundy chooses to approach that matchup moving forward will be interesting, though it’s possible he simply lacks the horses to fully contain it, particularly while LeBron James is on the floor to make every choice that much more difficult. The Pistons could send help on Love’s pick-and-rolls more often and force the ball out of his hands, but that’s a dangerous gamble that a generally strong Cleveland shooting cast around the arc won’t convert good looks. The Pistons also have to do a better job exploiting the other end of these matchups, and should be leaning even more heavily on Love in the pick-and-roll when the Cavs play him at center against Andre Drummond.
Drummond was another point of interest in Game 1, and will remain so. Cleveland began the game aggressively trapping Detroit’s bread-and-butter two-man game with Reggie Jackson and Drummond in pick-and-roll, forcing the ball out of Jackson’s hands and reducing Drummond to catching the ball at the free-throw line as a playmaker rather than his typical dunker role. Cleveland’s coverage became more varied as the game wore on, in part due to some counters Van Gundy mixed in for the Pistons. How Detroit is able to leverage their most high-gravity roll man will play a large role in determining the success of their offense as the series continues.
Perhaps most interesting from a tactical standpoint, though, was Van Gundy’s decision to bench Drummond for the final 2:58 of the game in favor of Aron Baynes. The move appeared to be made with the intent of avoiding the hack-a-Drummond tactic for the final 58 seconds until the 2-minute period arrived, but the game continued and Drummond remained on the bench. It was a curious move from Van Gundy, even despite Drummond’s warts. Baynes doesn’t bring anything beyond moderately improved spacing to the table, and was abused near his own rim on more than one occasion as the Cavs pulled away.
The strange tactic was only part of Detroit’s relative collapse down the stretch, though their red hot shooting from earlier in the game was bound to drop off eventually. Jackson took a silly technical foul that contributed as well, and the entire Pistons offense grew stagnant for stretches. There’s no guarantee we’ll even see major crunch time minutes again for the rest of the series, but Detroit will need much more composure if they want to have a chance when they do come.
We’ve barely touched on James, who was solidly in fourth gear but never really in fifth or sixth for most of this game – and may not need to be for another couple weeks, realistically. The Cavs had success clamping down on Detroit’s preferred offensive avenues, and the next couple games could be over a lot sooner even without any superhuman effort from LeBron if these sort of tough shots don’t find their mark for the Pistons. Expect the Cavs to stay focused, put the pedal down and try to get this one over with in four and rest up.
Prediction: Cavs take Game 2.
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