The Oklahoma City Thunder, one of the NBA's elite teams, will host the Detroit Pistons who are ... not one of the NBA's elite teams. It is a classic David vs. Goliath story, only I think the Thunder are both David and Goliath and the Pistons are more like one of David's irrelevant, unused stones. Is there any good news? For reason we'll discuss below, not really. However, the Pistons are coming off of a hard-fought win against the Portland Trailblazers while the Thunder previously lost to the NBA's worst team, the Washington Wizards, just five days ago.
Game Tips at 8: P.M. EST
Detroit Pistons: 4 - 13 (1 - 7 road)
Oklahoma City Thunder: 13 - 3 (6 - 1 home)
The two teams are like polar opposites. The Thunder, after moving to Oklahoma City from Seattle following the 2007-08 season have had a coherent plan to slowly build a championship contender with superstar Kevin Durant as the lynch pin. The Pistons, after seven straight seasons of at least reaching the Eastern Conference Finals in 2007-08, had absolutely no plan on how to retool and slowly chipped away at a championship contender. Now the Thunder are one of the five best teams in the NBA and the Pistons one of the five worst.
The Thunder have a great, efficient, versatile offense, and the Pistons have a horrible, discombobulated offense. The Thunder have a athletic, hard-nosed, hustling defenders and the Pistons can't communicate with each other and don't seem to know what their doing or where they should be most of the time. The Thunder have a passionate, committed fanbase and the Pistons are last in league attendance. The Thunder have one the game's premier GMs in Sam Presti while the Pistons have Joe Dumars. And I, an unabashed Dumars apologist, for the first time am wondering if Joe is going to be around to see this rebuilding process through.
Keys to the Game:
Run, Run, Run - OKC is one of the best, most efficient teams on the fast break, so conventional wisdom would say that the ideal plan would be to slow the game down and don't play into your opponents strength. Don't believe it. The Thunder use their quickness, length and smarts to force low-percentage jump shots and Detroit has shown all too happy to oblige in taking those kinds of shots against much worse opponents. With Ben Gordon questionable with a shoulder injury, the Pistons need to allow Brandon Knight and Rodney Stuckey to push the ball. The Pistons offense is not greater than the defense of Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha, so the Pistons need to force some transition opportunities and not let the Thunder get set on D.
In his excellent recap, Packey highlighted the biggest key to Detroit's win over Portland -- scoring outside of traditional offensive sets. While only shooting 7-for-20 on spot-up shots, the Pistons were 13-for-19 in transition plays, off of basket cuts, and after offensive rebounds. More of this, please.
Work the half-court offense through Monroe - The Thunder perimeter players are bound to give Detroit wings fits. If the Pistons have to run their half-court offense, they need to set up Greg Monroe in the high post and let him go to work. Monroe can be effective against starters Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison if he is able to face up and have more options at his disposal. Often when he attempts to back down his defender, Monroe leaves the ball vulnerable to the steal, and the Pistons can't afford to give the Thunder any easy transition hoops. And the best way to combat the Thunder's speed and length on defense is to suck the defense into the paint and kick the ball out to an open teammate or find teammates on cuts to the basket.
Let Walker Russell lead the bench unit - I'm as excited about the chance for Brandon Knight to learn and grow as anyone, but one thing he has shown is that he needs to have the Pistons most effective players around him in order to succeed. When Jason Maxiell, Damien Wilkins and Jonas Jerebko come into the game with Knight manning the point, the offense self destructs almost instantly. Knight isn't at a point where he can run the offense and put sub-par offensive players in the best position for them to be effective. He is still mistake prone and when things start breaking down he tries to do too much by himself.
Russell is not a great NBA player but against Portland he showed that he can run an offense and play largely mistake free. Knight is averaging more than 36 minutes per game since Jan. 6. BK should sit more, especially when the second unit is on the floor.
Rodney Stuckey, 3-point sniper - Rodney Stuckey has largely struggled this season, at least until Saturday's breakout 28-point, five rebound, four assist performance against Portland that included going 4-for-5 from downtown. Was the 3-point shooting in that game an aberration or a sign of growth in Stuckey's game? For the season, Stuckey is shooting 42 percent on 3s, and even before the Portland game was at a respectable 34 percent on the season. Before this year, Stuckey's three-point percentages looked like this: 18.8, 29.5, 22.8, 28.9. In other words, horrible. He's far eclipsed his career numbers and is on pace to triple the amount of 3-pointers made in any season of his career.
Stuckey has always been a terrifically strong, quick guard without a reliable jumper. If he can stretch his range out to 3-point territory, he will find it much easier to find open lanes to the basket and will probably even see a sizable bump in his efficiency at the rim. For a player that has flashed a number of great kills, Stuck has always been a low-efficiency player. If he can hit 3s and improve his conversion rate at the rim he could be an extremely valuable commodity.
Question of the Game:
Will the Pistons be down by more than 14 points at halftime?