Kyrie Irving is off to a great start in his effort to make up for lost time in the playoffs.
A year after missing five games in the NBA Finals and two in the Eastern Conference finals with a knee injury and leaving people wondering what might have been, the Cavaliers guard capped off a brilliant beginning to this year’s playoffs Sunday, scoring 31 points to help Cleveland earn a 100-98 win over the Detroit Pistons in Game 4 of a first-round Eastern Conference playoff series.
The Cavaliers completed a sweep of the best-of-seven series and advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals, where they await the winner of the series between the Atlanta Hawks and Boston Celtics that is tied at two games apiece.
Irving clearly is hungry and healthy at the moment, as he averaged 27.5 points in the series and outscored teammate LeBron James, who averaged over 22 points a game in the series.
“This postseason is what we have been preparing for,” Irving said. “It’s been a pretty good postseason so far.”
Just as in Games 1 and 3 in the series, Detroit hung with Cleveland for the entire game, but the Cavaliers had too much firepower and experience in the fourth to be denied.
After Detroit cut a nine-point Cleveland lead to 97-96 with 1:08 remaining on a 3-pointer by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Irving buried a 3-pointer from the wing with 42.6 seconds left to put the Cavaliers up by four.
Pistons guard Reggie Jackson shaved the Cleveland lead to 100-98 on a dunk with 32.8 seconds remaining, and then Detroit had a chance to tie or win after rebounding an Irving miss with under 10 seconds remaining.
Proceeding down the court without a timeout, Jackson couldn’t convert a contested 3-point shot from the top of the key as time expired.
Jackson, who was guarded by Irving, pleaded with the officials for a foul, but to no avail.
“I just think the refs need to have some type of system with fines and suspensions, just like us,” Jackson said.
Cleveland took an 81-78 lead into the fourth quarter after Irving hit a shot from half-court just before the buzzer sounded to end the third. He then scored the first five points of the fourth to give the Cavaliers an 86-78 lead with 11:15 remaining.
Detroit answered with a 7-0 run to cut its deficit to 86-85 with 8:35 left, but Cleveland took a 95-86 lead with 4:54 remaining on a deep 3-pointer by J.R. Smith.
A 3-pointer from Tobias Harris and a Marcus Morris basket pulled Detroit back within 95-91 with 3:44 remaining. Following a basket by James, Jackson scored with 2:31 left to bring Detroit within 97-93.
Ultimately though, the Cavaliers drew on the fact their roster had significantly more playoff experience than Detroit’s did.
“We said this would be a great experience for our guys, and it really has been the past five or six weeks of the season fighting to get in,” Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy said. “We have played in a lot of pressure basketball games. We do have to get better, there’s no question.”
James had 22 points and 11 rebounds, and Smith scored 15. Forward Kevin Love contributed 11 points and 13 rebounds, and reserve guard Matthew Dellavedova also had 11 points for Cleveland, which will now prepare for a long layoff waiting for Atlanta or Boston.
“We are able to get hit and keep moving forward,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said. “We have been harping on that all season. Not to drop our head and not to have bad body language when the other team makes runs. In this series, we got down a lot. We just kept pushing and moving forward.”
Morris scored 24 points and Harris had 23 points and 13 rebounds to lead Detroit, which was saw its first playoff appearance since 2009 end quickly at the hand of the top-seeded Cavaliers.
Detroit centre Andre Drummond compiled 17 points and 11 rebounds, and Jackson finished with 13 points and 12 assists.
One of the youngest teams in the NBA, the Pistons face an offseason question of what to do with Drummond, who is a restricted free agent.
He led the league in rebounding but shot 35.5 percent from the free-throw line and often had to be taken out of games in the fourth quarter because opponents would send him to the line on purpose.
Drummond got defensive at the postgame press conference when asked about how much he needs to work on his free-throw shooting over the offseason.
“What do you think?” Drummond said to the reporter. “It’s obvious, isn’t it? Next question.”