Facing the Wizards allowed the Pistons to face off against a fellow Eastern Conference lottery team hoping to claw its way into the playoffs. Playing Memphis allowed Detroit to play against a team similar to what the Pistons are striving to be. Playing the Celtics ... well, lets just say it's always fun to beat the Celtics.
But Tuesday night's game against the Indiana Pacers will be Detroit's toughest test yet, not only as a team but with interesting individual matchups. And while the words "moral victory" shouldn't be associated with any team that wants to be in the thick of a playoff chase, win or lose, tonight's game should be instructive.
Long story short, the Pacers walloped the Pistons on both ends of the floor last year. Detroit lost the series 0-4 and were outscored by an average of 20 points (97.5-77.5), and that included a 32 point whooping when Andre Drummond was out of the lineup. And while the Pistons have improved since last season, I wouldn't necessarily say that the Pacers have gotten any worse.
The Pacers are only giving up 83.7 points per game this season. No. 1 in the NBA. They also are only giving up 30 points per game in the paint. No. 1 in the NBA. The Pistons, meanwhile, are the No. 2 team in the NBA in points in the paint -- scoring 55.6 per game. Needless to say, something is going to have to give.
And it all starts with some fundamental defensive concepts in Indiana, starting with funneling everything toward center Roy Hibbert. Hibbert isn't scoring the ball like he was in the playoffs last season and his rebounding is good but not great, but he is protecting the paint like a beast. He is averaging 4.7 blocks per game and only
following fouling 2.3 times per game.
He is joined by David West, who plays solid defense in the post and mid-post, and doesn't let you hit your spots. He'll bully his opponent to going where he wants them to go. And on the perimeter the Pacers rely on the all-around great defense of Paul George and Lance Sephenson and George Hill, who play hard all the time and will chase players off the 3-point line and force opponents to shoot a low-percentage mid-range jumper.
The Pacers also as a team don't gamble -- they don't go for steals and they don't go for offensive rebounds, preferring instead to get back down the floor and set up their suffocating defense.
So to think that the Pistons will be able to dominate in the paint as they have so far is a stretch. And if they are even close to as sloppy with the ball as they were against the Celtics, they will get blown out. Basically, if Detroit's big three can find success against the Pacers, they will be able to find success against any team in the NBA.
Keys to the Game
Josh Smith vs. Paul George: When Smith signed, these are the kinds of defensive matchups I was looking forward to seeing him thrown into. Smith has the size and strength to bother George, but he has to play smart, in-control perimeter D.
Brandon Jennings: Jennings got his feet wet against an aggressive perimeter defense in the Celtics. Tonight is more of the same, but the Pacers are much more accomplished on the offensive end. Jennings and the Pistons will need to limit the gambling for steals and never drift too far away from the 3-point line. George Hill, Lance Stephenson and C.J. Watson can all hit from the perimeter.
Bigs vs. Bigs: To say I am excited to see Drummond square off against Hibbert and Greg Monroe face West would be an understatement. I expect it to be physical early and often. So if the Pistons get punched in the mouth, will they punch back?
Question of the Game
Will Kentavious Caldwell-Pope see action? My vote is yes.