Round 1 Riot: Cleveland (1) vs. Detroit (8)
The Pistons and Cavs have a lot of history together, which is fortunate, because that's the only thing that makes this series the least bit compelling. The Cavs finished the season as the most dominant team in the NBA, leading the league with a franchise record 66 wins and terrorizing opponents with an 8.9 point differential. The Pistons, on the other hand, posted their first losing record since 2001, winning just 18 times in their last 50 games. This could get ugly.
Reason to Watch
Some day your grandchildren will ask you what it was like to watch LeBron James win his first NBA title. You want to be able to look them in the eye and tell them you watched his entire playoff run from start to finish, right? Also, if the refs swallow their whistles whenever LeBron takes the court, can they cough them up fast enough to give Rasheed Wallace a tech for calling them on it? Tune in and find out!
How Cleveland Can Win
By showing up? I hate to be cliché, but it's true. Even Cleveland's bench is dangerous right now -- this team sat four starters in their season finale and still came within a bucket in overtime of beating a desperate Philadelphia 76ers team.
The Pistons, meanwhile, have no fight left in them. They entered the last week of the season needing two wins in their last three games to avoid the dreaded No. 8 seed and have a shot at the No. 6 seed. Instead, they dropped all three, coughing up fourth-quarter leads in every game. If the Cavs put the Pistons down 2-0 in the first two games, not even playing two straight at the Palace should help the Pistons extend this series to five or six games.
How Detroit Can Win
Before you accuse me of being too negative, it's not completely impossible that the Pistons pull off an upset. Who knows, Cleveland's entire starting lineup could come down with food poisoning. Or, tragic as it may be, perhaps that powder LeBron throws into the air accidentally gets replaced with anthrax.
Or ... maybe Rodney Stuckey has the series of his life, Rasheed Wallace keeps his head on straight, Antonio McDyess finds the fountain of youth, Rip Hamilton shakes off whatever hex the Cavs put on him two years ago and Walter Sharpe bursts out of nowhere with a "Tayshaun Prince circa 2003" performance. If all of those things happen, yes, the Pistons have a chance.
Video Clip to Get You Pumped
LeBron's epic Game 5 against the Pistons in the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals remains the signature performance of his career (and the longest game I've ever live blogged). He scored 29 of his team's final 30 points, sending the Cavs into two overtimes and sealing the win. (It also did irreparable damage to Detroit's status as a legitimate elite contender, although no one realized this fact for another 12 months.)
In the time since, LeBron has continued improved, his supporting cast is much stronger and the Pistons have deteriorated into afterthoughts in the East, the worst team in the league to sneak into the playoffs. Even so, there's an extremely good chance he won't come close to repeating those Game 5 heroics this year ... only because this series could be over in four.
Stud of the Series
After hyping LeBron so much in the paragraphs above, it seems silly to even mention another player in this section, no? It's true the Pistons do a better job slowing LeBron down than most, but not by enough to think he won't still be the most dominant force in this series. So let's just take that for granted and look at another X-factor ... Delonte West.
Often overlooked, The Golden Panther is sneaky good on offense, spacing the floor by shooting .399 from three-point land and keeping everyone (3.5 assists per game) involved while protecting the ball (1.5 turnovers per game). Plus, he's a pest on defense, and is one reason why Rip Hamilton averaged all of 13.8 points in six of his last seven regular season games against the Cavs (excluding last year's season finale, in which he scored just two points in 12 minutes before sitting out the remainder of the game in anticipation of the playoffs). As much as the Cavs credit Mo Williams' arrival for helping them take the next step, but be surprised if West is LeBron's sidekick du jour in this series.
There's no debate that the Cavs have more talent -- this might still be true if LeBron was surrounded by four middle school kids -- but compounding Detroit's problem is the fact that Mike Brown and his staff should coach circles around Michael Curry and his assistants. Brown is one of the best defensive-minded coaches in the league, and his lack of ego has allowed assistant John Kuester to transform the Cavs into one of the most potent offensive teams, as well.
Curry's lack of experience (he had just one year on the sideline as an assistant before taking over as head coach) has shown numerous times this season, including the last week of the regular season when his curious rotations (or lack thereof) contributed to the Pistons giving up fourth-quarter leads in their last three games. He can't seem to spark his team during lulls, and he's often slow to react when trouble on the court starts to snowball. Maybe he'll improve over time, but there's no reason to think it'll happen over the next four to seven games.
Cleveland: Brinson, Jones, Moore, Pollakoff, Steinmetz, Watson and Ziller
Detroit: ... <crickets> ...
If you've gotten this far, you already how I feel about this: the Cavs are going to win, it's just a matter of how many games it will take them. For all their faults, the Pistons are still a proud team, so the fan in me would like to believe they can protect their home floor at least once. The realist in me isn't sure pride is enough.
I've been a Pistons fan for as long as I've known was basketball was so it pains me to say it, but ... Cavs in four.