Déjà vu? Tonight, for the second time this season, Detroit faces off against Milwaukee for the second game of a back-to-back. On Monday, Nov. 25, the Pistons were fresh from a 109-97 win in Brooklyn when the Bucks came to town. Now they visit Milwaukee after a much more impressive 107-97 defeat of the Heat in Miami. While this is Brandon Jennings first trip back to the city where his NBA career began, that storyline is submerged by last night’s Pistons conquest.
The Bucks also played Tuesday night, losing in Boston 108-100. Their last win came at home on Saturday against those same Celtics. Coincidently, their first victory of the year was also over Boston. The only other team Milwaukee has beaten is Cleveland. Since their previous loss to Detroit, they’ve also fallen at home to Washington and on the road to Charlotte. Their 14 defeats currently lead the league.
One pleasant surprise of late for the Bucks has been the play of Brandon Knight. He has missed eight games this season due to a hamstring injury, and struggled at first when he returned to their rotation. In his first three games back, he averaged only six points (shooting .185) and recorded almost as many turnovers (15) as assists (16). But in his last three games Knight has averaged 17.3 points (shooting .475), with 16 assists and only five turnovers. Whether this trend will continue, or turn out to be just another high point in the roller coaster ride that Pistons fans witnessed for two years, remains to be seen. Last night in Boston, Knight made a 3-pointer with 1:09 left in the game to cut in half a six-point Celtics’ edge. But after they went back up by five, he air-balled a three with 0:37 to go and Boston held on to win.
Also expected to be in the Milwaukee starting lineup is former Piston Kris Middleton. But there have been some changes upfront, with Epke Udoh starting at center and John Henson starting at power forward. O.J. Mayo continues to hold down the shooting guard spot.
Since their last victory over the Bucks, the Pistons have lost at home to the Bulls and Lakers and beaten the 76ers at home and the Heat on the road. The latter achievement was Detroit’s first victory of the season over a team with a winning record. While they have struggled against a tough schedule in the early going, the Pistons have yet to lose to a squad with a losing record, and clearly do not want to end that streak in Milwaukee.
Power Forward: Greg Monroe versus John Henson. Henson got his first start of the season Saturday night, and responded with 13 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks. The long and lanky former Tarheel will need to be kept off the offensive boards. Monroe had a strong outing against Miami with 16 points (8-10 shooting), six rebounds, five assists and two blocks. He should be able to have his way inside, though he will need to be mindful of Henson’s shot-blocking skills.
Small Forward: Josh Smith versus Kris Middleton. Middleton has been starting since the first Detroit game, and has been productive (10.2 ppg in 25.4 minutes). He is making 44.7 percent of his threes, and he figures to get plenty of open looks tonight. Smith is only making 40.2 percent of his attempts, but that has not kept him from shooting. Hopefully he will make better use of his passing ability tonight.
Center: Andre Drummond versus Epke Udoh. Udoh has started the past two games, with mixed results (10 rebounds Saturday, one last night). He is not much of a scoring threat, but he can block shots. Drummond has been a rebounding terror of late, averaging 24 boards Per36 his last three outings. He was pretty quiet the last time these teams played, but another big night is certainly possible.
Point Guard: Brandon Jennings versus Brandon Knight. Knight got only his second start of the season when the Bucks played in Detroit, and had a horrible night (six turnovers). He will look to continue his improved play of late. Jennings had his most complete game of the season that night, with 15 points (4-6 on threes) and 13 assists. While he gave the ball up seven times against the Heat, his long 3-pointer with 4:09 remaining in the fourth gave Detroit a six-point lead after Miami had cut a 17-point deficit to three. Then he stole the ball from a driving LeBron James and fed Monroe for a layup at the other end that gave the Pistons a 100-91 edge with 2:06 left.
Shooting Guard: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope versus O.J. Mayo. Mayo still leads Milwaukee in scoring with 15.3 ppg, making threes at a .429 clip. Caldwell-Pope containing him to just five points on four shots in last week’s game was a mostly overlooked contribution to the outcome. He scored 10 points in just 20 minutes versus Miami, and should play more tonight so Jennings and Rodney Stuckey can get more in-game rest.
Bench: Milwaukee continues to rely heavily on its reserves, with Luke Ridnour, Gary Neal, Ersan Ilyasova, Zaza Pachulia and even rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo getting regular playing time. For Detroit’s bench, Rodney Stuckey is a virtual starter, since he leads all scorers with 16.9 ppg. Kyle Singler had a big night versus the Heat with 18 points, and finally rediscovered his 3-point range (4-7). Josh Harrellson, Jonas Jerebko and Peyton Siva will all likely be called on by coach Maurice Cheeks.
Keys to the Game
Jennings’ superb play sparked Detroit to a 30-point halftime lead over Milwaukee last time, and he closed out the victory with a dribbling exhibition that perturbed at least one member of his old team (Caron Butler). He appears to be increasingly confident at the reins of the Pistons’ offense as more of a pass-first point guard. Over the last five games he has averaged 13 shots (shooting .462 overall and .435 on threes) and 8.6 assists. Will he revert to his old shoot-first mentality before his former fans? Getting the ball inside to Monroe and Drummond will be essential for Detroit to win its third straight game. A letdown after last night’s big victory will play right into the Bucks’ horns, as they look to avenge a humiliating loss and give their hometown a reason to cheer about basketball rather than lottery balls.