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Pistons vs. Bucks preview: Detroit’s 'second season' begins in Milwaukee

The NBA’s worst team was very accommodating to the Pistons in their previous two contests. Will they be gracious hosts tonight?

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

When these two teams last met on December 4th, Detroit flew into town on a high, having just beat the Heat in Miami 107-97. Trailing 50-45 at the half, the Pistons exploded for 35 points in the third quarter to dispatch the Bucks 105-98, raising their record to 9-10. Since then Detroit has stumbled to 17-24 at the halfway mark, with only two victories over squads with more wins than losses. Defeats at the hands of Charlotte, New York, Orlando and Utah have shown that on any given night the Pistons can bomb. But a loss to 7-33 Milwaukee would be the ultimate humiliation.

The Situation

In the 22 games since these two teams played last, Detroit’s defense has given up over 100 points 16 times. Fortunately, the Bucks are dead last in scoring at 91.4 points per game. They lost to San Antonio 110-82 Sunday night for their ninth straight loss. Their last triumph was in Los Angeles on December 31st, so Milwaukee has yet to win in 2014.

Former Piston Brandon Knight has been a bright spot, and leads the Bucks with 15.9 ppg and 4.4 assists (2.7 turnovers). He has been averaging over 18 ppg since late November, and shooting a higher percentage than he did as a Piston (except from three-point range, where he has consistently made just .333 percent).

Center Larry Sanders has returned to the starting lineup, though his performance has been sporadic. He missed Tuesday’s practice due to an illness, so he may not be available for tonight’s contest. Ditto for reserve small forward Caron Butler and guard O.J. Mayo. Guard Luke Ridnour, who has been starting alongside Knight, may also be out due to a sprained wrist.

For Detroit, Brandon Jennings is making his second trip back to the city where his NBA career began. While he is averaging a career high of 8.3 assists, he is shooting only .369 percent. For January he is making only .255 percent of his shots, which is sadly the least efficient month of his career. But including tonight there are five games left, so perhaps he can finish the month above freezing.

The Matchups

Power Forward: Greg Monroe versus Ersan Ilyasova. Ilyasova is suffering through a mostly forgettable season (9.2 ppg on .391 percent shooting), but poured in 29 points recently versus Toronto. He scored 22 points and grabbed 10 boards in the December meeting between these teams. Monroe scored only six points on three shots against the Clippers Monday, so Detroit needs to get him more involved. Perhaps he can remind our point guard that he is still our third leading scorer (14.2 ppg). His 18 points and 17 rebounds were key contributors to the Pistons’ December victory.

Small Forward: Josh Smith versus Kris Middleton. Middleton has been coming off the bench lately, but the injuries and illnesses to others may alter his role for tonight’s game. He has started 25 games, averaging 10.7 points and making .402 percent of his threes. Smith has played his most productive ball of the season in January (18.0 ppg on .449 shooting with 8.4 boards), with five games of 20 points or more. Although he starts at small forward, it seems likely that he will continue to see more minutes at power forward, as he has in recent games.

Center: Andre Drummond versus Epke Udoh. If Sanders cannot start due to his illness, Udoh will probably get the nod. While he has started 12 games and averages 20.9 minutes, he is a subpar rebounder and scorer. Drummond scored 24 points and pulled down 19 rebounds in the last meeting, and with 30 double-doubles he trails only Minnesota’s Kevin Love.

Point Guard: Brandon Jennings versus Brandon Knight. Jennings has gotten the better of this matchup in the previous meetings, but if current trends continue that could change tonight. Knight has scored over 20 points nine times, and scorched the Lakers for 37 and the Knicks for 36. Milwaukee will depend on him to score. Detroit needs Jennings to return to form as an energetic playmaker and take good shots, rather than engage in a shoot-out.

Shooting Guard: Kentavious Caldwell- Pope versus Giannis Antetokounmpo. The NBA’s youngest starter this season, G.A. is averaging 7.1 points and 4.7 boards in 23.2 minutes per game. Caldwell-Pope is on the floor mostly for his defense, though he has occasionally contributed some offense at key moments. He could have his hands full with the Bucks’ athletic 19-year-old.

Bench: Milwaukee has used its reserves extensively, with Coach Larry Drew starting 11 different guys at least 11 games. Assuming the starters will be those projected above, we can also expect to see plenty of John Henson (12.3 ppg, 8.3 rpg) and Gary Neal (10.1 ppg). Rodney Stuckey’s return to health has bolstered Detroit’s bench; his 29 points Monday were a season-high. Kyle Singler (8.6 ppg) and Will Bynum (8.5 ppg, 2.8 apg) are the other major contributors for Coach Maurice Cheeks.

Keys to the Game

Hobbled by injuries and illness, the Bucks should be no match for the Pistons if they focus on feeding Drummond and Monroe inside. But even a bad team can play a good game once in a while, and Milwaukee does have some capable three-point shooters. If they do not rely on their strengths on offense, and relax their already deficient defense, the Pistons could get gored even by the Bucks anemic antlers.

Bonus Feature

Want to see how the Milwaukee organization is making use of analytics? Check out this interview on their official website: Advanced Stats Interview