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Pistons vs. Trail Blazers Preview: Can Detroit stop ‘the fastest guns in the West’?

High-scoring Portland, the Western Conference leader and the NBA’s most surprising team, visits Motown tonight.

Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Spo

What a difference a month makes! When the Trail Blazers hosted the Pistons on Nov. 11, the NBA season was only two weeks old. The home team was 4-2, fresh off back-to-back victories over the Sacramento Kings. They had also logged impressive wins over San Antonio and Denver, but had lost to Houston and Phoenix. Detroit was 2-3, but had fallen on the road to Memphis in overtime, and at home to Indiana and Oklahoma City. (The two wins were at home over Washington and Boston.)

The Pistons were beginning a four-game road trip that Veterans’ Day evening, and fell 109-103 to the Blazers in a hard-fought contest. Down by three at the half, and by 13 with 4:29 left, the visitors stormed back to close the gap to four at 1:28 on a Brandon Jennings’ layup. But Detroit was unable to score again, and Damian Lillard clinched Portland’s triumph with two free throws with 12 seconds remaining.

The Pistons went 1-3 on that West Coast road trip, and have been up and down ever since, having experienced both a four-game losing streak and a four-game winning streak on the way to their current 11-13 record. A streak of three losses was halted by Friday night’s 103-99 defeat of Brooklyn at the Palace.

As for Portland, they followed up their conquest of Detroit with eight more wins in a row before they lost again (inexplicably) to Phoenix. While they have often feasted on the league’s weakest squads (they have not lost yet to an Eastern Conference team), they have also achieved quality victories over the Spurs, Warriors, Pacers, Thunder and Rockets. Since Coach Terry Stott’s charges went 33-49 in 2012-13, most observers assumed they would miss the playoffs again for the third year in a row. Now even the West’s best taste their dust. They opened a four-game road jaunt last night in Philadelphia with a 139-105 trouncing of the 76ers, raising their record to 20-4.

While the Trail Blazers are a middle of the pack defensive team, they lead the league in scoring (107.8 points per game). They especially excel at making three-pointers (40.9 percent for the NBA’s second best mark), free throws (81.8 percent and second) and grabbing offensive rebounds (12.8 per game and fourth). Their top stars are LaMarcus Aldridge (23.5 ppg and 10.6 rebounds per game) and Lillard (20.1 ppg and 5.6 assists per game).

Detroit’s offense and defense are both no better than league average. Where the Pistons stand out is on points scored in the paint, offensive boards and steals, where they lead the league. But they are near the bottom both on making and defending the three, and turnovers have also been a major problem. The team’s scoring attack features five players in double-figures, with Jennings leading the way with 17.1 ppg and 7.6 apg.

The Matchups

Power Forward: Greg Monroe versus LaMarcus Aldridge. In the last game this was a major battle, as Monroe (19 points and eight rebounds) held Aldridge (18 points and 12 boards) to 8-19 shooting. Aldridge has been torrid in December, shooting 55.1 percent, scoring 26.7 ppg and grabbing 13.0 rpg. This year he has posted 13 double-doubles and has pulled down over 20 rebounds twice. Monroe’s 17 shots at the Moda Center was the most he had attempted all season up until he took 22 and 18, respectively, in Detroit’s last two games. He averaged 25 ppg on 57.5 percent shooting, and now has ten double-doubles. It is doubtful the Pistons will have a chance in this game unless they feed the Moose early and often.

Small Forward: Josh Smith versus Nicolas Batum. Batum has been solid (13.6 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 5.3 apg), and is one of three Portland starters making over 40 percent of his threes. Fortunately for Detroit in the last game, he only shot 1-5, but a repeat of that performance should not be expected. Smith’s averages are comparable (13.8 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 3.5 apg), but he is making only 38.5 percent of his shots (26.9 percent of his threes). He does give the Pistons 1.5 steals and 1.5 blocks per game. While they basically fought to a draw in the last outing, Batum’s game-high eight assists were a significant factor. Smith will need to pay close attention to Batum on defense, and focus his scoring efforts closer to the basket.

Center: Andre Drummond versus Robin Lopez. Since coming to the Blazers in the offseason, Lopez has become a strong addition to their frontline. He is giving them 9.5 ppg, 8.7 rpg and 1.5 bpg. His craftiness at scoring inside (a season-high of 17 points) made a major difference in the first game. He has recorded ten double-doubles so far. Drummond began a string of seven straight double-doubles with his 16 points and 16 boards that night, and at 17 he is tied with Blake Griffin for third best. Defensively, he will need to keep a careful eye on Lopez, as well as be a dominating offensive threat in the paint.

Point Guard: Brandon Jennings versus Damian Lillard. These two traded baskets last time, with Jennings’ 28 points edging Lillard’s 25 for game-high honors. Both players often look for their own shot, but Lillard has been more reliable from three (41.3 percent versus 35.1). Neither is known for their defense, though Jennings nabs 1.7 spg. Expect another shoot-out – if B.J. does not suffer another 3-14 game like he did versus the Nets.

Shooting Guard: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope versus Wes Matthews. Matthews has been Portland’s most efficient scorer (16.3 ppg on 52.0 percent shooting), and he is also their top three-point threat (46.8 percent). He scored only three points back in November; expect him to be more productive tonight. Chauncey Billups started back then, and Caldwell-Pope did not play. The Pistons will need him to provide solid defense and hit open shots (he has made 40.9 percent of his threes in December).

Bench: Mo Williams has been the major contributor among the Blazers’ reserves, averaging 9.1 ppg in 24.8 minutes. His 17 points (on 7-9 shooting) were a big boost in their earlier victory. Joel Freeland and Dorell Wright have played important roles, and Thomas Robinson is getting some burn, too. The Pistons’ bench has been even more vital to their modest success, as Rodney Stuckey is the team’s second leading scorer at 15.7 ppg. Kyle Singler takes up nearly half of the available minutes at small forward, averaging 8.1 ppg. Lately Josh Harrellson has been the first big man off the bench. After missing the past nine games due to a groin/hamstring injury, Will Bynum could possibly return to action. It is unclear how his availability will affect Coach Maurice Cheeks’ guard rotations, which only recently have re-included Billups.

Keys to the Game

The biggest difference maker when these teams played 34 days ago was at the three-point line, where Portland connected on 11-23 (47.8 percent) while Detroit made just 3-14 (21.4 percent). If the Pistons had shot their average (31.4 percent) and held the Blazers to theirs (40.9 percent), that alone would have created a nine-point swing. If Singler can continue his hot shooting of late (50.0 percent on threes in December) that could provide the edge – assuming the defense also fairs better. The offense must rely heavily on Monroe and Drummond to score efficiently in the paint, and minimize poor shot selection by Jennings and Smith. An efficient performance by Stuckey could help, too; he shot just 4-15 in Portland. Detroit should be the fresher team since the Blazers played Saturday night, but they were able to rest their starters the entire fourth quarter in Philadelphia. With a game at 20-3 Indiana looming Monday, the Pistons need to take care of business at home tonight.