The Pistons are talking more openly about a playoff run. This comes partially as a result of the eighth-seeded Boston Celtics losing Rajon Rondo, their offensive catalyst and arguably their best player. But if the Pistons, currently four games back of Boston, are serious about playoff contention these are the exact type of games that they must win.
The Milwaukee Bucks have lost both meetings against the Pistons so far this season, but Detroit shouldn't get too complacent -- that was a different Bucks squad. Under old coach Scott Skiles the Bucks happily sacrificed offensive for defense, preferring a slow, grind-it-out style. But since Skiles and the team mutually agreed to part ways (sure), new coach Jim Boylan has unleashed the shackles of Milwaukee's offense. The team is 7-3 since he took over and a team that scored more than 100 points 10 times in 32 contests under Skiles has done it seven times in 10 games under Boylan.
The biggest beneficiaries of the new regime are Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova. That should be unsurprising as both are offense-first players who seemed frustrated by Skiles micromanaging and afraid to make mistakes. Under Boylan Jennings has upped his scoring average to 21 points per game, including a blistering 42 percent from deep. Ilyasoyva finally looks like the player the Bucks gave $40 million to in the offseason after starting the season in a horrific slump. He's scoring five points more per game (15.6) under Boylan than he was under Skiles.
The Pistons, meanwhile, need to build some momentum. In between tonight's game against the Bucks and their next meeting on Feb. 9, Detroit plays key games against the Pacers, Lakers, Knicks, Nets and Spurs. In other words, they can't let any winnable games slip away. Incidentally, they then play the Bucks, Hornets, Wizards, Grizzlies and Bobcats before the trade deadline hits. I guess we'll learn a lot about the Pistons between now and then (cough, Rodney Stuckey, cough). Will Detroit have unloaded pieces, made trades with a playoff push in mind or simply stood pat?
Keys to the Game
Drum-Roe. Whereas the Pistons previous opponent, the Magic, played surprisingly small, the Bucks have no shortage of big men. They have the NBA's leading shot-blocker in Larry Sanders, .veteran Samuel Dalembert, talented rookie John Henson, Ekpe Udoh (thanks again, Warriors, for drafting Udoh instead of Greg Monroe) and perimeter-oriented Ersan Ilyasova. This game should provide ample opportunities for Lawrence Frank to play Andre Drummond and Monroe extended minutes together. And as none of the Bucks big men are terribly offensively gifted it should allow both players to do what they do best. For Monroe that is look to score and create for teammates and for Drummond it is owning the paint, providing great help defense, and created second chances for teammates with offensive rebounds. Offensive rebounds will be available, too, as Milwaukee ranks 28th in defensive rebounding percentage.
Frustrate Jennings: I noted above that under Boylan, Jennings has upped his scoring output, but he remains the low-efficiency volume scorer he has always been. He's averaging 8.5 assists over his last four so he does have playmaking ability but over that same span he has attempted 15, 19, 17 and 20 shots. Brandon Knight has upped his defensive effort lately, and his D on Jennings will be important. Knight needs to stay active and focused and force Jennings into bad shots because he has proven he will take them. The same, of course, can be said for Jennings' backcourt mate, Monta Ellis.
Limit turnovers: One thing Milwaukee does to boost its lackluster offense is get steals on the perimeter that lead to fast break points. Jennings and Ellis are two of best pocket pickers in the game, ranking fifth and 13th in the NBA, respectively. The Pistons struggle with turnovers constantly and that will be especially if Stuckey, the team's best ball handler, remains out. Knight and Will Bynum need to protect the ball and not give the Bucks easy opportunties.