Game 19 Preview: Blazers vs. Pistons

A Look at the Pistons

The post-Big-Ben Pistons had a rough start to their season, losing 5 of their first 8.  Their offense was fine but they were giving away points like candy and struggling to score themselves.  They've since won 8 of their last 9.  Their defense is slightly better (they allowed 96.9 per game in the first eight, 95.1 since) but their offense has REALLY picked up (rising from 94.4 ppg to 100.8).  Admittedly part of that has been the caliber of opponent lately, but (er...) they're not playing a high caliber opponent this evening, so there's little reason to think it will change.

Driving the Pistons' engine has been Rip "The Crippler" Hamilton, averaging 22 points a game. (And if you get that reference you're TOTALLY in with me...)   He does more than a quarter of his damage from the foul line where he's shooting 90%.  He's still not the world's most prolific long range shooter but he'll hit them if you leave him open.  And inside the arc he'll hit whether you leave him open or not.  His backcourt mate Chauncey Billups continues to prove himself one of the more able point guards in the league, averaging 18 points and 8.5 assists.  Much like Sam Cassell and Ray Allen in the old Milwaukee days, these two will make life hard on you all evening long.  It wouldn't shock you to see either (or both) go for 30 on any given night.  The only complaint about the one-time Dynastic Duo is that left to their own devices neither is a particularly good defensive stopper.  But that just doesn't matter because they are backed up by forwards Tayshaun Prince and Rasheed Wallace, both of whom are long, active, and real trouble.  You couldn't find a stronger multi-purpose pair outside of a three-player fantasy league.  They can score, rebound, defend, pass, dunk, and generally make your life miserable in any way you choose.  Prince has had a fantastic start to the season, averaging 17 points, 6 boards, 3 assists, 51% (!) shooting from the field, and 49% (!!) shooting from the 3-point line, all of which would be career highs if they held up.  Rasheed seems to be feeling the strain of Fro-zilla's absence as his scoring average has dipped to 13.5.  It's not that he's shooting poorly, rather he's getting fewer shots.  To make up for it he's averaging career highs in rebounds (9.8) and blocks (2.0).  And yes, he can still hit the 3-pointer.

The rest of the Piston lineup is far more pedestrian.  Nobody's averaging more than 21 minutes a game outside of those four.  The whole rest of the team accounts for only 22% of the total point production.  Flip Murray has been a particular disappointment, but Nazr Mohammed, Antonio McDyess, Carlos Delfino, Jason Maxiell, and Lindsay Hunter don't exactly throw the fear of God into you.  Mohammed is pretty good defensively and he and McDyess can rebound, but nobody in that group is at the top of their game (or anyone else's, for that matter).  Neither are they particularly good at sharing the ball and coaching great team defense was never one of Flip Saunders' strengths.

In short, the Pistons have four working cylinders that any team would envy and a bunch of jury-rigged parts cobbled around them.  But it really doesn't matter if you don't like the upholstery, the car will still get you where you're going most days, as their division-leading 11-6 record shows.  They are only 5-4 on the road, but they are 8-2 at home.  They probably aren't world champion material anymore, but they're better than their opponent at least 70% of the time, and that includes tonight.

Things I'd like to see:

  1.  Rasheed Wallace has not played very well against us for a while now and Prince and Hamilton usually don't kill us.  Chauncey Billups, on the other hand, steals our lunch money, buys lunch, chews it up, spits it back out, and then makes us buy it back from him at twice the price.  If you stop Billups you will cripple the Pistons.  The question is, "How?"  If we had Brandon Roy I would for sure be recommending we put him on CB.  But we don't.  So either Jarrett Jack has to defend way above his head or we somehow have to work it that Udoka guards Billups while Jack takes Hamilton and Webster or Outlaw watch Prince.  Double-teaming might be a decent strategy, at least to get the ball out of his hands.  Another way to do it would be keeping constant pressure on Billups to guard somebody.  This would be the night for both Jack and Rodriguez to run everywhere they go and drive multiple times.  If you could manage to get Chauncey on the pines from fatigue or foul trouble you'd give yourself at least a ghost of a chance to stay close.
  2.  The real problem the Pistons present is that you have to know who you're guarding at all times.  Hamilton you try to make into a driver.  Prince you let do almost anything but drive.  (But you can't sag off him entirely to help elsewhere because he'll drain that 3 on you.)  Rasheed is just a nightmare matchup whether he's inside or out.  Nazr Mohammed you can ignore but you better box him out after the shot goes up.  And Billups will find any or all of these guys exactly where they like it (or exactly where you ease up).  You will see picks.  You will see backdoor cuts.  You will see whatever you're least ready for.  There is no single, set defense that you can run to counter them all and they're far too experienced to be confused by quick-switching between zone and man and matchup zone.  In short, our guys are going to have to be really, really smart and alert and communicate out there.  (If I may lapse into my high-school Spanish here, El Chance-o Fatto Muey Grande...)
  3.  There's an old adage in football:  when in doubt, blitz.  It seems that might be a decent long-shot strategy tonight.  Press and run.  Keep fresh bodies in and don't let up.  This year's Pistons are all over the map as far as point totals but the old Pistons would have been slightly more apt to win a game in the 80's than a game in the 100's.  Every Pistons loss this year has come when the opponent scores 97 or more and 4 of the 6 were over 100.  Also Detroit never turns the ball over nor do they depend on others doing so.  They want to play a steady, controlled, professional game.  Making it scrappy, frantic, and emotional is probably our best chance.
  4.  When a team relies on a relatively small percentage of its roster for most of its output, if you can knock a leg out of the stool it's more likely to tip.  We already talked about running Billups ragged, but running right at Rasheed or one of the other two and trying to get them into foul trouble is a viable strategy.  Who are they going to bring off the bench that matters?
  5.  Speaking of benches, this is another one of those nights where our second unit needs to run about +15 to make up for what the starters will probably suffer.
  6.  If Rasheed hasn't played well vs. Portland, neither has Zach against Detroit, at least traditionally.  Last year he busted out with a couple of huge games, but before that the Pistons had his number.  We'll need everybody on top of their games to even have a shot at winning, but my gut tells me that some other guys are going to have to have strong games in order to open things up for Randolph to get his 30.
I was all ready to say that Portland was not going to lose all six on this trip, that they were going to surprise at least one team, and that the Pistons maybe could be that team.  But you know what?  Detroit just lost to the 5-12 Bobcats on Sunday.  That means they won't only come out with superior talent, but some motivation as well.  Predicting that they will slip to two (quite) sub-par teams in a row, with the second game at home to boot, seems ridiculous.  Why couldn't they have come in all overconfident with a 9-game winning streak in tow?  Darn those Bobcats anyway!  Alas, I fear our heads will be mounted on the wall tonight.  And not even in the main trophy room either, but out in the garage hanging beside the jar of rusty excess swing set bolts.  (sigh)  Let's at least hope we make them work for it.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

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