LeBron has mastered art of first-round playoff knockouts

  • By TOM WITHERS
  • Sunday, April 17, 2016 1:04am
  • Sports

CLEVELAND — LeBron James is a perfect 10 in the first round of the NBA playoffs.

As he enters his 11th postseason in 13 years, James, who is seeking a sixth straight appearance in the Finals, has a spotless record in the opening round while playing for Cleveland and Miami. And the four-time league MVP figures to continue his streak of first-round knockouts when the Cavaliers take on the Detroit Pistons starting Sunday.

Although the top-seeded Cavs are heavily favored over the eighth-seeded Pistons, James isn’t taking anything for granted.

“They got a well-coached, balanced team and they’ve fought their way into the playoffs and we have to respect them,” he said.

Returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2009, the young-and-talented Pistons won’t be intimidated by the matchup after winning three of four — both teams rested their starters in the finale — against the Cavaliers in the regular season. Detroit’s future is bright, but it’s hard to imagine a team with little postseason experience taking down James.

Overall, James is 40-7 in the first round and only had one series extended to six games.

Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy, who has faced James before in the playoffs, knows his squad has a tough task.

“It will be difficult,” Van Gundy said. “They’re the No. 1 seed in the East. They’re a team that went to the Finals last year. They’ve got three All-Star-caliber guys, one probably the best player in the world. And their complementary guys are very good.”

Of course, the Pistons’ primary objective will be to slow James, who had a fabulous finish to the regular season and is focused on returning to the Finals.

James, who has also won 13 straight first-round openers, can’t be guarded by one player, which presents Van Gundy and the Pistons with the dilemma of how much help to bring when he has the ball.

Van Gundy, a baseball junkie, said it’s like pitching to Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera.

“It’s like major league hitters,” he said. “If you have a hole somewhere and people find out about it and they can hit it, you’re not going to be very good. If you’re Miguel Cabrera and you don’t have a hole — good luck. Pitch him the best you can, he’s still going to hit the (snot) out of it.”

Here are other things to watch as the Cavs and Pistons meet in the postseason for the first time since 2008-09, when Cleveland won in four games.

Welcomed back

Injuries derailed Cleveland’s championship chase last year, when Kevin Love was knocked out in the first round with a shoulder injury and Kyrie Irving went down with a serious knee injury in the Finals. Love and Irving are eager for their second tastes of the postseason.

“I just feel like I’m in a good place,” Irving said. “And last year, going through the playoffs injured, obviously it’s still in my head. But I’m way past that point, which I’m happy about.”

Love and Irving are playing well lately, which should ease the burden on James, who can carry the Cavs by himself but is even more dangerous with a strong supporting cast.

Lue’s debut

For the second straight year, the Cavs enter the playoffs with a first-year coach. Tyronn Lue has postseason experience as a player, but this is his first foray as the man in charge. Lue took over in January when David Blatt was fired and guided the Cavs to a 27-14 record and top seed in the conference.

James doesn’t know if his coach’s familiarity with playoff pressure will serve him, but he’s confident in Lue.

“We’re going to find out, but he’s our coach and we love him,” James said. “We trust the system that he’s put in. We trust the process that he’s put in, and the game plan going into Sunday we trust. So I think the fact that he’s been a part of big playoff games as a player and as a coach benefits our team — for sure.”

Action Jackson

Pistons starting point guard Reggie Jackson should be close to 100 percent after being kept out of the final two games with an abdominal strain. Jackson averages 18.8 points and Detroit’s counting on him to provide offense to counter Cleveland’s firepower.

Jackson scored 23 points in two of the Pistons’ wins over the Cavs, and his matchup with Irving will be entertaining.

Board battle

Lue’s recent decision to move Tristan Thompson into the starting lineup ahead of Timofey Mozgov gets an immediate test as the Cavs try to keep Pistons big man Andre Drummond — the NBA’s leading rebounder — from dominating the boards.

The 6-foot-11 Drummond averaged 14.8 rebounds, one more than DeAndre Jordan of the Los Angeles Clippers.

“We have to do our best to keep him off the boards and have it be a team effort,” Love said. “He’s a load down there.”

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