A lot has changed since the Cleveland Cavaliers and Detroit Pistons last met in the playoffs. LeBron James left Cleveland, won two championship with Miami, and returned back to his home state of Ohio.

Detroit has mostly watched his postseason success from home, having missed the playoffs every year since the Cavaliers swept them back in 2009.

Once again, Cleveland boasts the top player and playoff seed in the Eastern Conference. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love represent significant upgrades in sheer terms of talent from James’ first Cleveland tenure, and though he’s now on the wrong side of 30, LeBron remains an elite player and matchup nightmare.

While Detroit was aged and at the end of a long, successful run when they last met Cleveland in the playoffs, this year’s iteration is young and eager to prove itself. Four-fifths of the Pistons’ starting lineup is under the age of 26, and the team is far more athletic than it was in 2009.  It’s also closer stylistically to the team head coach Stan Van Gundy put together in Orlando that season—when the Magic defeated the Cavaliers 4-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals.

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Cleveland’s Keys to the Series

LeBron James was terrific in the last month and a half of the regular season, and will need to continue that good play if Cleveland is going to win this series comfortably.  LeBron’s shooting recovered over the last few weeks and his efficiency skyrocketed as a result.  Though he’s now on the downside of his athletic prime, LeBron’s ability to get to the rim and finish remains as good as anyone in the league.  Throw in some good outside shooting and he is as big a force as ever.  He has, however, struggled in the three games he played against the Pistons this year.

Detroit made a conscious effort to keep him out of the paint and force him to take outside shots that he was uncomfortable shooting.  That resulted in LeBron’s eFG% dropping to just 45.5 percent against the Pistons this year.

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He generally lower efficiency shots than he did in the regular season because of how the Pistons’ defense worked to contain him along the perimeter.  Whether that will continue into the playoffs remains to be seen, but the types of shots that LeBron is taking will likely dictate how the series go for Cleveland.  If the Cavs can put LeBron into better positions, their odds of winning the series comfortably go up dramatically.

Even assuming LeBron plays at a high level, he will need some support from at least one of Kyrie and Kevin Love. Love put up 29 points against the Pistons in the their January win. Since the Tobias Harris trade, Detroit has struggled defensively at the power forward position.   Where the Pistons have several different guys to throw at LeBron, they lack even one really good option that can guard Love both in the post and on the perimeter.

Harris will likely be called upon to defend Love for the majority of the series.  And Love will need to exploit that match-up when the Cavs are on offense.  Love did an especially good job against the Pistons in the January win at getting loose along the perimeter.  And then he made the Pistons pay for losing him, making five of his seven three-point attempts.  Harris has struggled to defend the three-point line during his 27 games in Detroit.  In fact, his counterparts have an eye-popping 46.2 percent shooting percentage on three-point attempts. Look for Cleveland to continue to exploit that with Love and Channing Frye.

Detroit’s Keys to the Series

Offensively, the Pistons need big performances from their two best players, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson, to have any chance of winning the series.

Drummond, who relies so much on his size and athleticism, will have a massive advantage  against Tristan Thompson, as evident in the regular season, with Drummond putting up a 62.2 eFG%, 10 points higher than his regular season average.  Drummond’s improvement was especially stark inside five feet, where his eFG% jumped from 57.7 percent to 69.6 percent. Drummond will need to maintain those high efficiency numbers against the smaller Thompson if the Pistons have any chance to win the series.

Reggie Jackson should be defended the majority of his minutes by Kyrie Irving and J.R. Smith, two players he should be able to take off the dribble fairly easily.  How well Jackson capitalizes on that advantage by aggressively driving to the paint will be crucial for the Pistons’ offense.  Jackson’s penetration is what the Pistons offense is built on.  It gets the wings open shots from the perimeter and makes Drummond’s job easier.  With both Jackson and Drummond having favorable match-ups offensively, the Pistons will need to emphasize their two best players in the pick and roll.

Defensively, the Pistons need to tighten up their defense on high screens.  They struggle to defend the pick and roll, ranking bottom 10 in the league in both ball handler and roll man efficiency.  The Cavs are most likely to exploit that in terms of the “roll man,” where they rank second in the league in terms of points per possessions.  Complicating matters even further is the success Kevin Love had in January and the struggles of Tobias Harris along the perimeter during his time in Detroit.

The Pistons’ one saving grace is the defensive versatility among their wings.  Harris, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Marcus Morris are all versatile defenders which allows the Pistons to switch more often than most teams.  Caldwell-Pope and Morris, in particular, are good defenders who can hold their own if they are switched onto a bigger or quicker player. Inevitably, though, the Cavs will find mismatches.  And when they do, the Pistons will need stronger help defense from Andre Drummond than they got for most of the regular season.

Prediction

The Pistons match up better with the Cavs than your typical eight seed, but the overall talent level is something that will be difficult to overcome.

Cavs in 6

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Matthew Way

Matthew Way is an eternally optimistic Detroit Pistons fan who loves basketball at every level. When not watching the NBA, he spends time worshiping John Beilein's motion offense.

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