The last time the Detroit Pistons beat the Memphis Grizzlies, the leading scorer for the men from Motown was Richard Hamilton with 25 points. Next in line was new sixth man Ben Gordon with 22 points. It was their first game of the 2009-10 season and, after a convincing 96-74 victory, there was plenty of reason for optimism. Detroit had hired a new head coach in John Kuester, brought back Ben Wallace to anchor the defense, signed Charlie Villanueva to stretch the floor at power forward, and drafted three promising rookies in Austin Daye, Jonas Jerebko and "Wrong" DaJuan, DaJuan Summers.
In all, that roster featured eight additions (just like this season). Flush with this road win, their fans hoped the Pistons would make the playoffs with a winning record (unlike the 2008-09 squad that limped into the postseason with a 39-43 finish). But from that initial high they started to stumble, enduring three prolonged losing streaks of seven games in Nov., 13 in Dec.-Jan. and 11 in Mar.-April on their way to a 27-55 record. That was also Detroit’s worst record since 1994-95. Looking back, the best thing about this disappointing season was getting the seventh pick in the 2010 NBA Draft, which was used to select Greg Monroe.
The 2013-14 Pistons have just four players who can recall that beat down of the Grizzlies – Will Bynum, Jonas Jerebko, Rodney Stuckey and Villanueva. The infusion of new talent since then has been considerable, so this will be the best Detroit team arriving at the FedEx Forum in four years. Whether they’ll be able to end a seven-game losing streak depends on much more than their own talent, however.
While the Pistons’ fortunes declined markedly over those four seasons, Memphis has been enjoying the best years in franchise history. In 2009-10, under new head coach Lionel Hollins, they finished 40-42. The following year they went 46-36 and surprised the Spurs, 4-2, in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs. In the 2012 playoffs they fell to the Clippers, 4-3, but last season they made it to the conference finals before being eliminated by San Antonio.
This season Memphis is aiming not only for a fourth straight trip to the playoffs, but also their first ever NBA finals. They won’t be looking to Coach Hollins to lead them there, though, because they parted ways with him this summer. Dave Joerger, who served as a Grizzlies assistant coach for six years, is the new man in charge. He’d been Hollins’ lead assistant since 2011, with defense being his primary focus. The fact that Memphis has had one of the NBA’s top defenses probably bolstered Joerger’s resume.
Sizing up the Grizzlies
The Grizzlies’ offensive strength is in the middle, where power forward Zach Randolph (15.4 points, 11.2 rebounds) and center Marc Gasol (14.1 ppg, 7.8 rpg) give them a potent one-two punch. At point guard, Mike Conley has grown into a star. In addition to providing them with 14.6 ppg and 6.1 assists per game in 2012-13, he also pocketed 2.2 steals. Along with Tony Allen (1.5 steals), he forms the league’s most felonious backcourt. At small forward, former Piston Tayshaun Prince plays the role of "glue guy" that he had with those great Detroit teams of the last decade.
Other than their new head coach, the biggest change for Memphis this season is a stronger bench. Mike Miller was signed to bring three-point range (career average of .406 percent) to a team that made the fewest threes in the league (4.7 per game). They traded for Kosta Koufos, who started at center for the Nuggets, to back up Gasol. Nick Calathes, who played basketball in Greece the past four years after two promising seasons at Florida, was signed to help spell Conley at the point.
Key reserves returning from last year’s team are Jerryd Bayless (8.7 ppg, 3.3 apg), Quincy Pondexter (6.4 pg, .395 percent of threes), and Ed Davis (7.7 ppg, 5.7 rbg). Davis, who came over in the trade that sent Rudy Gay to Toronto, saw his role shrink significantly in Memphis last year. His preseason production (22.1 minutes, 9.8 ppg, 7.9 rpg) indicated he deserves a larger role, but he played sparingly against the Spurs.
Opening night disappointment
Memphis opened the season with an opportunity for revenge in San Antonio on Wednesday. Their prospects looked good through the first quarter, and they actually sported a 22-18 lead, when the bottom dropped up. The Spurs scored 22 unanswered points to take a 48-27 halftime lead. The Grizzlies fought back in the second half to come within five points in the fourth quarter, but then San Antonio pushed their lead back to 15 on their way to a 101-94 victory. Just like in their playoff series last May, a key factor was the Spurs ability to contain Randolph. He scored only two points, which was even worse than his 11 ppg average (.302 percent shooting) in that 4-0 sweep.
Keys to the Game
Both teams rely heavily on their big men, so the outcome of the post contests between Andre Drummond and Gasol, and Monroe and Randolph, will be crucial. While Detroit gets the edge for athleticism in these match-ups, experience is clearly an advantage for Memphis. At small forward, Prince should be outmatched against Josh Smith – especially if he plays to his strengths of posting up and driving to the hoop. Expect to see major minutes from Miller (he played over 24 minutes against the Spurs, scoring 11 points and making two threes), as Prince is still recovering from a preseason stomach ailment. In the backcourt battle, our guards will have to take great care of the ball. Rodney Stuckey is expected back, and may even start, since head coach Maurice Cheeks has said that he prefers to use Bynum to run the second team. Cheeks said in preseason that he would go with a four-guard rotation, so this may still leave a role for rookie Kentavious Caldwell-Pope tonight.
This game promises to be a defensive struggle. If Detroit can contain Randolph inside, that will make a huge difference. Still, it will be difficult to dominate in the paint like they did against the Wizards. Another masterful job by Billups of running the Pistons’ attack will also go a long way toward helping prevent their losing streak to the Grizzlies from extending to eight games.