Fresh from a much-needed victory in Brooklyn, the 5-8 Detroit Pistons host their Central Division foe from Milwaukee tonight. While the Pistons have failed to win the second game of a back-to-back yet this season, they could hardly have asked for a more convenient opponent now. The Bucks are 2-10, and the only team with a worse record are the 1-13 Utah Jazz.
Currently sporting an eight-game losing streak, only five of their losses have come against teams with winning records. By comparison, of Detroit’s eight losses, only one has come against a team with a losing record (the L.A. Lakers). Still, it would be a mistake to take Milwaukee too lightly. While they lost by 24 points Saturday night at home versus Charlotte, that was the second game of a back-to-back, and the previous night they lost in overtime at Philadelphia.
So we can expect that coach Larry Drew and his squad will be looking for a win, even if the organizational strategy is to tank in hopes of winning the 2014 Draft Lottery. For a franchise that has made the playoffs seven times in this century, but last advanced beyond the first round in 2001, this is probably a wise strategy. Last year’s 38-44 team was easily swept 4-0 by the Miami Heat. In response, general manager John Hammond decided to replace his starting backcourt of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis, who together were responsible for 36.7 percent of their points, 54.2 percent of their assists, and 42.9 percent of their steals.
While neither Ellis nor Jennings was an efficient scorer (their combined True Shooting Percentage was about 50 percent), it’s not surprising that without them the Bucks are at the bottom of the NBA in scoring with 89.4 points per game. As a team they are shooting 41.3 percent (29th), which should be a gift to a Pistons’ defense that has been allowing opponents to connect at 48.1 percent (30th). Milwaukee has been making threes at a 38.6 percent clip, thanks largely to the efforts of Caron Butler, O.J. Mayo, Gary Neal and Kris Middleton.
The Bucks defense has also suffered this year (their Defensive Rating has declined from 12th to 23rd), which is primarily attributable to the loss of shot-blocking center Larry Sanders. He had a breakthrough year in 2012-13, and signed a 4-year, $44 million contract extension in August. Then he got involved in some fisticuffs at a nightclub in early November, tore a ligament in his thumb, and will miss at least six weeks of play.
Power Forward: Greg Monroe versus Ersan Ilyasova. The Bucks stretch-4 recently returned from an ankle injury that caused him to miss six games. He scored 19 points in 41 minutes against the 76ers Friday, so he should be back to full strength. Monroe will need to keep him from getting open shots on the perimeter, and punish him in the paint on offense.
Small Forward: Josh Smith versus Caron Butler. Butler recently missed two games due to a shoulder issue, but he poured in 38 points against Philadelphia. Milwaukee’s number two scorer at 14.5 points per game, he’s making three-pointers at a .382 clip. He’s also attempting over five a game, so we can expect him to do more of the same tonight. Smith needs to stick close to Butler on defense so he doesn’t have another offensive explosion, and use his superior size to his advantage to score inside on him.
Center: Andre Drummond versus Zaza Pachulia. Zaza is not much of a scoring threat (he’s shooting 35.3 percent), but he is pulling down nearly eight boards in about 28 minutes. The potential is here for a big night from Drummond. Last season he went off for 18 points and 18 rebounds in one game against the Bucks. Can he do it again?
Point Guard: Brandon Jennings versus Luke Ridnour. Ridnour has started the last three games after missing Milwaukee’s first seven contests due to a back injury. He hasn’t shot well, but his 4.6 assists per game are close to his career average. He may be the easiest opponent on both sides of the ball that Jennings has faced yet. Will B.J. feel a need to show his old team that he can still score with the best of them, or will he continue to showcase his improved skills as a distributor? His 8.0 apg are a career high.
Shooting Guard: Kentavious Caldwell- Pope versus O.J. Mayo. Mayo is leading the Bucks in scoring with 15.7 ppg, and is making threes at 46.3 percent. So the first priority for Caldwell-Pope is to stay close to him on defense. Then if he could hit a few shots (he’s 7-33 his last three games - 21.2 percent) that would also help.
Bench: Milwaukee has used its reserves extensively, with nine players averaging over 24 minutes per game. Rookie PG Nate Wolters has recorded seven starts, but his playing time has declined since both Ridnour and Brandon Knight have returned to health. Gary Neal has also logged extensive time in the backcourt. Upfront, John Henson and Epke Udoh are the main reserves. Former Piston Khris Middleton has also assumed a major role, averaging almost 25 minutes and earning five starts. For Detroit’s bench, Rodney Stuckey is leading the way with 15.8 ppg, followed by Kyle Singler at 7.8 ppg. Upfront, Josh Harrellson and Charlie Villanueva may also see some minutes.
Keys to the Game
Milwaukee has six players who have made over 35.0 percent of their threes, and they attempt almost 20 per game. So the primary defensive challenge for Detroit should be to contain their shooters without allowing easy baskets inside. The Pistons’ league worst field goal defense has been leakiest inside the 3-point line, where they’ve allowed opponents to make 52.2 percent. On offense, Detroit needs to do what they do best – pound the rock inside against a Bucks team that should be at a size and skill disadvantage. Unless they are worn out from yesterday’s victory, this contest should be the Pistons most convincing win of this young season.