Last season the Phoenix Suns went from obvious Western Conference doormat to most surprising team in the league thanks to an innovative new coach and some stellar guard play from Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe. The team caught lightning in a bottle, won 48 games and fought hard for a playoff spot.
This year, however, the voltage has significantly dimmed. Things just aren't gelling like they were last season and the Suns sit at 6-5. But there is no better cure for a struggling team than the Detroit Pistons, who look to secure a win at home before embarking on a short two-game road swing.
Where: The Palace of Auburn Hills, Auburn Hills, Michigan
When: 7:30 p.m. EST
Watch: Fox Sports Detroit
Exceptionally Detailed Analysis
The Suns decided to double down on its explosive point guard experiment and made their duo a trio with the offseason signing of Isaiah Thomas (my No. 1 offseason crush). Thomas has delivered as advertised, serving as an explosive scorer and capable ball distributor. He's not hitting high percentages from the field but he is getting to the line a ton and creating opportunities for others with his whirling dervish style. But the Suns are struggling to make their trio work as an entire unit, with Dragic struggling as he has less control of the offense and new $70 million man Bledsoe not converting on offense or delivering on defense at the level that his new salary dictates.
But it's only been 11 games and if there is any team that can help things click for a dynamic offense it might be the Pistons. The Suns are, after all, just a better, more mature version of the Orlando Magic who easily handled the Pistons 107-93 on Monday.
The Magic were able to do it thanks to guard penetration and elite shooting from the perimeter. The Suns aren't as dangerous from deep this year, with their most potent threat, Channing Frye, leaving for the Magic, coincidentally, but they do have a bunch of players that can get into the lane and finish at the basket.
Alex Len has been a pleasant surprise in the post and Dragic can kill you with penetration, with a full 40 percent of Dragic's shot attempts come within three feet. Overall, the Suns score 45.6 points in the paint per game, sixth in the NBA.
For the Pistons, the only way to win will be to punish the Suns inside. Greg Monroe, Josh Smith and Andre Drummond have to be more of a threat inside than they were against the Magic and they have to win the rebounding battle handily. The Suns rank 27th in points in the paint allowed and 24th in total rebound percentage.
The player the Pistons need to target is Miles Plumlee. Plumlee's opponents shoot 56 percent at the rim on more than eight attempts per game, per SportsVu data. In fact, three give up at least three attempts at the rim per game and all allow their opponent to hit at a better than 50 percent clip. Plumlee, Len (52.9 percent on 6.2 attempts) and Markieff Morris (59.7 percent on 5.6 attempts).
For comparison's sake, the Pistons interior defenders (who by my eye test have been dreadful) are ranked as such: Monroe (50.0 percent on 6.3 attempts per game), Smith (50.6 percent on 7 attempts) and Drummond (44.6 percent on 8.4 attempts).
Players to Watch
Detroit: Greg Monroe
The Moose had his first truly poor game of the season against the Magic and combined with the usual futility coming from Smith and Drummond, there was no way for the Pistons to compensate. The team hit 11-of-24 3s and still lost. Monroe can't afford not to carry the load down low again, and as stated above he should be able to go to work against the Suns. If Monroe can give the offense of focal point in the paint and allow the perimeter shooters to augment that, we could see something a lot more effective and aesthetically pleasing than what we saw against Orlando.
Defensively, meanwhile, Monroe is going to have his hands full. He'll have to contend with Markieff Morris, who shoots roughly 60 percent of his shots from between 10 feet out to the 3-point line. And when Monroe shifts to center, he will face Alex Len who has been a pleasant surprise down low for the Suns.
Phoenix: Isaiah Thomas
Thomas has the second-highest true shooting percentage of any Suns rotation player not named Len and the top assist percentage on the team. He could go absolutely nuts assuming he is guarded all night by DJ Augustin and Brandon Jennings. And if the Pistons decide they want to switch Kentavious Caldwell-Pope onto the 5-foot-9 Thomas, that means that either Augustin or Jennings will be forced to guard Dragic.
I'm particularly worried about Augustin, who has been really dreadful on defense so far and hasn't gotten his offensive game going either. A combination of Augustin and Thomas on the floor together could turn a close game into a 10-point burst of offense for the Suns relatively quickly.
Last Time We Met
The Pistons went 1-1 against the Suns last season, but lost the second matchup 98-92. Here is an excerpt from the DBB recap. Let's hope history doesn't repeat itself.
Josh Smith was awful, hoisting selfish jumpers and disinterested defensively. Perhaps my favorite, most Josh Smith defining shot, came in the first half with a contested fade away jumper from 20 feet on the baseline with plenty of time left on the shot clock. You'll never guess how that shot turned out. He missed all of his eight free throws, putting his free throw percentage at a whopping 47 percent since February. And you'll never guess who led the team in minutes with over 42 minutes.
I'm feeling particularly surly after the abomination against the Magic. The only shred of hope the Pistons have is Phoenix's weakness inside defensively and the fact that they haven't been hitting the 3-point shot at prodigious, Orlando levels. Let's go with 112-106 Phoenix.
Pistons: Jennings, Caldwell-Pope, Smith, Monroe, Drummond
Suns: Bledsoe, Dragic, Marcus Morris, Markieff Morris, Plumlee
Pistons: Gigi Datome (hamstring), Martin (foot) are probable; Meeks (back) is out
Do you think this will finally be Andre Drummond's breakout game?