CLEVELAND (AP) — LeBron James isn’t all alone.
One year after he carried the Cavaliers as far as he could in the postseason, James once again has Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love by his side.
Cleveland’s Big 3 is playoff healthy again.
Irving scored 31 points in his first playoff game since being injured last year in the NBA Finals and Love, who was knocked out in the first round by an injury a year ago, added 28 to lead the Cavaliers to a 106-101 victory over the young and confident Detroit Pistons in the opener of their first-round playoff series Sunday.
James added 22 points and 11 assists for the top-seeded Cavs. They are favored to win the Eastern Conference again but got all they could handle from the fearless Pistons.
Cleveland’s championship chances were dealt a major blow when Love’s shoulder was dislocated in just his fourth playoff game last year at Boston. The Cavs advanced to the Finals without him only to have Irving break his kneecap in Game 1 against Golden State, an injury that left James to fight the Warriors on his own.
As he sat between his teammates – who combined with him for 81 points, 24 rebounds and 18 assists – following the game Sunday game, James looked relieved.
“For these two guys, they were just excited to get back to this moment,” he said. “These guys have been working hard, Kyrie on his knee, Kevin on his shoulder just to get back to this moment. It was great to be out on the floor with them and for them to put together the performance that they did.”
Love made two critical 3-pointers in the fourth quarter and the Cavs overcame a seven-point deficit by outscoring the Pistons 30-18 over the final 10:52.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope scored 21 points and Marcus Morris had 20 – but just one after halftime – and Reggie Jackson added 17 for the Pistons, making their first playoff appearance since 2009. Andre Drummond had 13 points and 11 rebounds for the Pistons, who made 15 3-pointers but missed a couple open ones down the stretch when their playoff inexperience showed.
Despite the loss, Jackson and his teammates didn’t lose any confidence.
“We don’t care who you put in front of us,” said Jackson, slapped with a technical with 3:24 left. “We fear nobody and experience is going to be our best teacher. We’re going to learn on the fly. We think we have a chance.”
Game 2 is Wednesday night at Quicken Loans Arena, which was on edge for much of Game 1 as the Pistons, who beat Cleveland three times during the regular season, flirted with an upset.
For more than 40 minutes, the Pistons, who have just one starter with playoff experience, matched the Cavaliers shot for shot. Detroit’s young squad wasn’t intimidated and Jackson’s 3-pointer tied it 88-88 with 6:29 left.
But that’s when Love, who has had two uneven seasons since coming to Cleveland, buried consecutive 3s to put the Cavs ahead by four and finally allow a sellout crowd of more than 20,000 a chance to relax.
“My mentality was to be aggressive all night,” said Love, who added 13 rebounds. “We have to do that the entire series.”
The Pistons hung around and were within four at 100-96 on a free throw by Morris, but James cut to the basket for a layup and Jackson missed a 3-pointer before Irving’s two free throws gave Cleveland an eight-point lead.
The Pistons, not known for 3-point shooting, made 10 of 16 in the first half and finished 15 of 29.
“They didn’t catch us off guard,” James said. “We did it to ourselves. We were a step slow on some of our coverages and they made us pay for it. In the second half we knew we had to play a little bit more close attention, a little bit more close to our details that our coaching staff told us to do.”
James has won 14 consecutive games in the opening round and has never failed to advance past the first round in 10 previous tries.
The Pistons headed back to Michigan, making the 26-minute flight to Detroit. They’ll return Tuesday following an afternoon practice.
Pistons: Before the game, coach Stan Van Gundy faked surprise when asked about his team being an underdog. “Are we?” he cracked. … Van Gundy’s brother Jeff, who is expected to meet with Minnesota about its coaching job, was a TV analyst for the game. … Jackson appeared in 30 postseason games for Oklahoma City. He was a rookie on the Thunder’s 2012 NBA Finals team but did not play in the championship series.
Cavaliers: James appeared in his 179th playoff game, tying Michael Jordan for 17th on the career list. … Cleveland is the No. 1 seed for the third time in franchise history but has never advanced to the finals from that spot. . James is 34-12 in playoff games at the Q. . James and Mo Williams, who is out with a sore left knee, are the only current Cavs players who were on the 2009 team that swept the Pistons. … Browns coach Hue Jackson was in attendance.
Game 2 is Wednesday at 8 p.m. EDT.
by Tom Withers (AP)