The Blazers land in Detroit today to take on the Pistons at The Palace of Auburn Hills, a matchup that is the second half of a back-to-back set for Portland following their blowout win over Philadelphia last night and Detroit's four-point victory against the Nets Friday night.
These two teams last met about a month ago in the Moda Center. The Blazers won 109-103, even though Pistons point guard Brandon Jennings had 28 points and Detroit outscored Portland in the paint by a total of 60-36. A vicious three-point attack led by Blazers point guard Damian Lillard's five triples and the two-headed rebounding monster of center Robin Lopez and forward LaMarcus Aldridge buried the Pistons despite Portland committing 15 turnovers to just 8 by Detroit.
The Pistons have lost four of their last five after starting December strong with four straight victories, including a win over the Heat.
Detroit relies heavily on the contributions of its four best players: Jennings, forwards Josh Smith and Greg Monroe and center Andre Drummond.
All four players take a boatload of attempts near the rim, and only Jennings converts at below 54 percent there. Smith has had a terrible year shooting the ball from everywhere but in the middle, where he's been decent. Monroe steps out very occasionally to take shots from the mid-range, but the bulk of his shot-attempts come inside and Drummond has only tried six shots outside of the key all season, and it's been working for him because he's nailing about 65 percent of his attempts close to the basket.
The Pistons are the No. 1 team in the NBA in points in the paint per game, and they're relatively efficient at scoring from within the arc. Lately, things have been a bit hit-or-miss for Detroit, with Jennings, Smith and rookie guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope struggling with their shots while Drummond, Monroe and backup forward Kyle Singler have shot very efficiently.
The Blazers will likely have a hard time stopping Monroe and Drummond from operating in the paint. Smith and Jennings will likely also attack the middle, and they may do it to some degree of success.
The Pistons outscored Portland in the paint by 24 points the last time they met, but the Blazers came out with the victory mainly because of the abysmal three-point shooting of Detroit in a 3-14 performance from beyond the arc. Detroit's usual outside shooting efficiency isn't much better, but they still take a lot of three-pointers. Portland is pretty stingy in allowing opponents outside shots, but the Pistons have seen some improved outside shooting lately from Singler, Caldwell-Pope and Jennings.
Detroit also likes to push the ball, so the Blazers will have to try containing the Pistons on the fast break. Portland outdid the Sixers last night in fast break points by a 17-9 tally. The Pistons struggle with transition defense, so the Blazers should again look to get as many points on the run as they can against a team that will allow it if its will is tested.
Detroit has some serious rebounding strength between the frontcourt duo of Monroe and Drummond. The Pistons are the best offensive-rebounding team in the league and not bad on the defensive side of the boards, either. Both teams will have to watch the other's second-chance points, because they share the same strengths and weaknesses rebounding-wise. Monroe, Drummond, Lopez and Aldridge have all been great individual rebounders this season but both teams pepper in the boards a little from all angles. Don't be surprised to see a battle on the glass today after the Blazers barely edged the Pistons in rebounding the last time they met, with a 44-42 advantage.
Lately, Portland has seen stellar play from Aldridge on the offensive end, where he's punished teams from the mid-range and from inside when necessary. Tonight, he'll face Monroe and Smith a lot, with Drummond likely providing some help defense. All three are capable defenders in the paint, so Aldridge has his work cut out for him if he decides to stray from his usual jumpers and bang in the key a little.
Lopez will probably again benefit from Aldridge's success, as he's found plenty of open shots near the rim recently and has been hitting them at a pretty good rate. Batum has also been very efficient in a supporting role where he's taken mostly open shots while crashing the boards hard and making it a point to get teammates involved. Portland's offense functions efficiently with Batum as a hub, taking some pressure off Lillard and Aldridge to create shots on their own.
Blazers guard Wesley Matthews has taken more shots than anyone but Aldridge in the last five games, but he's cooled off since starting the year as one of the best outside shooters in the league. Even in a mini shooting slump, Matthews still hits threes at an average level and continues to shoot open shots within Portland coach Terry Stotts' offense. He probably wasn't going to be a 53 percent three-point shooter all year but he's also clearly capable of more than his current five-game stretch of outside shooting at a 34.4 percent clip. Matthews has always been about a 40 percent guy from outside, and those numbers should start creeping back toward the mean if history is any indication.
Lillard has been red-hot shooting the ball from outside lately, and he should continue to see open looks today because Jennings isn't known as a good defender and his backup, Will Bynum, is out. Lillard and Blazers backup point guard Mo Williams should be able to create for themselves and their teammates today, because Detroit often struggles to defend teams well, particularly on the perimeter.
Even though the Pistons have a formidable frontcourt that starts with Smith at small forward, Monroe at the four and Drummond at center, they are still figuring out how to operate as a unit. Smith doesn't fit in offensively as a three unless he's limiting his jump shots (he's not) and Monroe is still getting used to the power forward position as both he and Drummond are bigs who prefer playing inside.
Portland will likely again be punished inside by a team that's dominant in the paint offensively thanks to the play of their frontcourt as well as the willingness by Jennings to get to the hoop. Still, their defense becomes more suspect the further out they're forced to defend. Stotts' offense will allow players to find open looks if executed well, especially against a Detroit team that earns steals in bulk yet still allows plenty of room for the offense to operate outside.
This game -- like many others for the Blazers so far this year -- is likely to be highly impacted by the outside shooting of both teams. Last game against each other, the Pistons destroyed Portland in the paint but only made three outside shots in a six-point defeat while the Blazers nailed 11 threes that night. If Detroit's hitting their outside shots and complementing their dominant inside attack, Portland better be answering with conversions of their own from deep because the Pistons make life difficult near the rim.
Today's game has the potential to be close again, especially with the semi-early start today after the Blazers played last night. Don't be surprised to see a shootout of sorts between Detroit's inside game, quick tempo and penetrating attack versus the Blazers' efficient, opportunistic jump-shooting offense.
-- Chris Lucia | Twitter