Portland Trail Blazers (42-20, No. 3 in the West)
Friday, March 13
Moda Center; Portland, OR | 7:00 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: CSNNWHD; 620 AM
Out for the Blazers: | Out for the Pistons: Brandon Jennings, Joel Anthony
SBN Affiliate: Detroit Bad Boys | Timmay's Viewing Guide | Blazer's Edge Night
The Blazers host the Detroit Pistons tonight, losers of eight straight games.
Detroit has had an up-and-down year to say the least. After the experiment of bringing in guard Brandon Jennings and forward Josh Smith fell flat on its face last season, coach Stan Van Gundy was brought in to change the direction of the team and take over GM duties.
Big men Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe were the two pillars the Pistons hoped to build around for the future, both frontcourt mates who had shown flashes of brilliance throughout their first few years in the league together. Though Smith was a bit of a spare part in Detroit -- his best position was the same as Monroe's, power forward -- Pistons fans hoped Van Gundy could find a way to distribute the minutes in his frontcourt fairly and effectively while still minimizing the time Smith spent on the perimeter.
Still, Monroe wasn't sold on the prospects of splitting time with Smith in the post and turned down an extension with the team in favor of signing a 1-year qualifying offer that would make him an unrestricted free agent this summer. The 2014-15 season was already off to a rocky start, as the Pistons' prized 24-year-old big man was disenfranchised enough to risk injury and forgo the security of a long-term deal for the opportunity to leave town at the end of the year.
A 3-6 start out of the gate may have been a bit disheartening but probably came as no surprise -- Van Gundy clearly needed more time to fix the chemistry issues stemming from the arrival of Jennings and Smith in 2013 -- but no one expected Detroit's almost month-long, 13-game losing streak that extended from November 15 to December 9.
The week before Christmas, Van Gundy and the Pistons ownership decided to sever ties with Smith altogether, sending him packing with a guaranteed $28 million coming his way from a Detroit team that decided it would rather pay him to leave town than keep him in the lockerroom.
The move paid off for the Pistons, as they immediate rattled off seven straight victories, also winning 12 of their next 15 contests. All of a sudden, Jennings was finding his way as a team-leader and effective point guard, Drummond continued his evolution as one of the league's most dangerous rebounders and Monroe was free to hold down the power forward position without worry that Smith would absorb any of his playing time. Detroit was back in the playoff race.
But then bad luck struck the already-downtrodden city and franchise again, just as they appeared to be turning a corner and making strides in the Eastern Conference; In late-January, Jennings would go down with a ruptured Achilles, putting a major dent in the Pistons' playoff prospects.
Nevertheless, guard D.J. Augustin filled in serviceably for Jennings, and Detroit was able to tread water heading into the All-Star break, going 4-5 in a nine-game stretch and keeping playoff hopes alive in the Motor City.
In a high-risk, potentially high-reward move, Van Gundy opted to package Augustin and forward Kyle Singler -- one of the team's only reliable shooters -- in a trade that would bring in noted-malcontent Reggie Jackson to take over point guard duties. Jackson had shown plenty of potential in Oklahoma City, but wasn't happy with his role playing behind All-NBA talent Russell Westbrook and badly wanted out.
Van Gundy's gamble on Jackson and his double-down on the season appeared to pay off early, as the Pistons beat the Bulls and blew out the Wizards immediately following the break; Maybe, Pistons fans probably thought, Jennings' injury wasn't as disastrous as previously expected.
Those hopes went down the drain quickly, though, as Detroit was exposed, once again, as a team completely lacking the outside shooting needed to surround the twin towers of Drummond and Monroe. Since the trade deadline, the Pistons are 2-8, have lost their last eight games and have virtually no chance of crawling back into the playoff race at 23-41.
Things aren't all bad for Detroit -- the aforementioned duo of Monroe and Drummond is proving to be one the NBA's most promising young frontcourts. Both have attempted about 14 shots a night since the All-Star break, each making 51.4 percent of his shots. Monroe has a nice touch around the rim and can create his own offense. Drummond might be the best offensive rebounder in the league right now -- he's averaged 7.1 a night since the All-Star break, pulling in 17 (!) two nights ago against the Golden State Warriors -- and he's able to go right back up with the ball, often picking up second-chance points in the paint.
For the most part, however, Detroit hasn't played well at all down the stretch. The team is near the bottom of the league in points scored per game, field goal percentage and three-point shooting percentage. The Pistons aren't particularly prone to turnovers but generally don't get much value out of their possessions, either. Out of Jackson, guards Jodie Meeks and Anthony Tolliver and wings Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Tayshaun Prince and Caron Butler, only Meeks has made more than 32.8 percent of his threes the last 10 games. In that time, Detroit is shooting 28 percent from deep as a team.
Defensively, the Pistons are at least average in points given up per game and opponents' assists, also defending the three-point line fairly effectively. Drummond is a legit rim protector. Really, Detroit's anemic jumpshooting appears to be the main cause for the team's post-All-Star break woes.
The Blazers have played two games so far without guard Wesley Matthews in the lineup, and the results have been mixed. On Saturday, the Timberwolves lit up Portland for 121 points on 54.1 percent shooting from the floor as the Blazers struggled to defend the wings. On Wednesday, Rockets guard James Harden was held to 18 points on 7-of-19 shooting as Portland escaped with the 105-100 victory.
Power forward LaMarcus Aldridge hit 12 of his 20 shots against Houston, ending with 26 points and 14 rebounds, a great bounceback after his shooting touch had proven faulty most of the previous several games. Van Gundy will likely throw different looks at Aldridge tonight. Expect to see Drummond cross-matched on him defensively with some double-teams thrown in. Ball movement will be key tonight against Detroit, and that starts with Aldridge as he identifies what opposing teams are running at him and decides to shoot, put the ball on the floor or pass out.
Guard Damian Lillard had an off night against the Rockets on Wednesday, shooting just 5-of-16 from the floor and 1-for-5 from deep. The Pistons defend the perimeter well and Drummond is a long, athletic shot-blocker down low, so Lillard won't have an easy time creating his offense at the rim if his jumper continues to be off. Like he did against Houston, he'll have to find teammates for open looks if his shot isn't falling.
Forward Nicolas Batum is back to playing at full capacity, draining 43.5 percent of his threes and 51.7 percent of his field goal attempts since the All-Star break. His passing has been solid and his shooting improved. Batum will be asked to pick up a fair chunk of the offense left on the table with Matthews out and so far, he's seemed up to the challenge.
Center Robin Lopez hit 7-of-10 shots against Houston on Wednesday, finishing with 16 points as he bullied the Rockets' undersized frontcourt inside. Backup big man Chris Kaman hit half of his six shots and hauled in 10 rebounds. Detroit's frontline is much bigger than Houston's, though, so those interior shots should come much less easy. Kaman should be able to drag out his defender with his reliable jumper.
Guard Arron Afflalo hasn't had an easy transition into the starting lineup, making just two of his 13 tries on Wednesday and only one of his seven three-point attempts. He's getting good looks, the shots just aren't going in right now. Expect his play to improve as he gets more and more time getting used to his teammates.
Portland's bench wasn't particularly great against the Rockets, as only Kaman and center Meyers Leonard made more than half their shots that night. Forward Dorell Wright and guard Steve Blake were unable to get into any sort of a rhythm, and guard CJ McCollum found himself in more of a distributing role than the scoring role he's used to. Coach Terry Stotts turned to Leonard on Wednesday when Aldridge had to sit out most of the third quarter with foul trouble, and the third-year center responded by hitting two three-pointers and a shot at the rim in nine minutes, production that will be needed if Wright, Blake and McCollum can't generate any offense from the wings.
Monroe is a good rebounder for the Pistons, and Drummond is completely tearing up the boards this year. His main specialty comes on the offensive end, where he's averaged more rebounds the last 10 games than any of his teammates besides Monroe have averaged on both sides combined. Lopez, Kaman, Aldridge and Leonard will have their hands completely full tonight trying to contain Drummond. The good news is that Detroit gets very few contributions on the glass otherwise, so wing rebounders like Lillard and Batum should be able to sneak in and steal a few.
If Portland wants to prove that it can still make some noise this spring with Matthews out, the team will have to perform much more down the stretch like it did against Houston on Wednesday than Saturday in Minnesota. With an upcoming five-game road trip next week that features two back-to-backs and wraps up in Memphis, a home victory against Detroit -- the No. 12 team in the East and losers of eight straight -- could provide a bit more momentum after the gutty win over Houston a few nights ago.
-- Chris Lucia | email@example.com | Twitter
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