The last time the Bobcats came to the Palace, the Pistons took a 14-point lead into the final frame. A win would have brought their record to 14-14 and solidified their playoff hopes. Instead, Detroit was blown out by a score of 41-17, losing 116-106. Losses in seven of their next eight games followed. Since falling to 14-22, the Pistons have played .500 ball to reach 22-30 at the break. Prior to the Cleveland loss, San Antonio fell to them.
At 23-30, Charlotte holds a half-game lead over Detroit for the Eastern Conference’s eighth seed. The Bobcats also entered the break with a disappointing defeat by a team from the East (Brooklyn), after having conquered a very good team from the West (Dallas). While their defense is among the best (6th), their offense is one of the NBA’s worst (26th). But this was hardly reflected in their previous contest with the Pistons. Guards Kemba Walker and Gerald Henderson scored 56 points, making 20 of 30 shots. And after being frustrated for much of the game, Al Jefferson scored 15 of his 24 in the fourth quarter, willing his team to victory.
Since that loss, Detroit has suffered similar disasters against Washington, Memphis, Toronto, Milwaukee, New Orleans and Cleveland (though, to be fair, the free-fall comprised the whole second half in the games with the Grizzlies and Raptors). If they could have held on to their lead in just four of those outings, the Pistons would be sitting at .500 with the fourth seed. But, to paraphrase a former coach, there’s nothing we can do about that.
A win tonight would elevate Detroit above Charlotte, and make tomorrow evening’s game in North Carolina the rubber match for the season series. While there is a lot of basketball still to be played between now and mid-April, a sweep by either squad will put them solidly on course to make the playoffs. With a split, we might well expect a close race all the way down to the finish line. After these two games, their next five opponents are all likely playoff teams. So the Pistons need to perform like they did in their three consecutive victories over the Nets, Nuggets and Spurs if they want to remain in competition for a postseason berth.
Power Forward: Greg Monroe versus Josh McRoberts. "McBob" (8.2 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 4.1 apg) has started all but one game for Charlotte, and it’s easy to undervalue his contributions. He doesn’t make mistakes, passes well, and can shoot threes (.381 percent). Monroe (14.3 ppg, 8.7 rpg) is both a versatile and efficient scorer (.600 percent in February), but needs the ball in his hands more. After a very disappointing effort versus the Cavs, he must step up his defense – especially if Coach John Loyer utilizes him some against Jefferson as Coach Maurice Cheeks did.
Small Forward: Josh Smith versus Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Kidd-Gilchrist (7.9 ppg, 4.9 rpg) is one of the few small forwards in the league who is less of a three-point threat than Smith. A good defender who runs the floor well, he missed the first game due to injury. Smith (16.1 ppg, 7.0 rpg) has been playing more efficiently on offense, while also rebounding, facilitating and blocking shots at a higher rate. This match-up should favor the Pistons, especially since Kidd-Gilchrist can’t really take advantage of Smith cheating on defense.
Center: Andre Drummond versus Al Jefferson. Jefferson (20.1 ppg, 10.5 rpg) has been a huge upgrade to the Bobcats frontline, and is probably the main reason why they are in the playoff mix this season. Neither Drummond nor Monroe was able to contain him when he heated up in that decisive December fourth quarter. Fresh off his MVP performance in the Rising-Stars Challenge, Drummond (13.1 ppg, 13.0 rbg) needs to continue to demonstrate that he is also an All-Star. For February he has averaged over 16 points, nearly 15 boards, and over two blocks, so the potential is clearly there for him to become an even more dominant force in the paint.
Point Guard: Brandon Jennings versus Kemba Walker. Walker (18.1 ppg, 5.2 apg) is the sparkplug for Charlotte’s offense, and had a huge game (34 points) when these teams last played. While Jennings (17.6 ppg, 8.1 apg) was useless on defense against Walker, he scored his 26 points efficiently (10-20) in that losing effort.
Shooting Guard: Kyle Singler versus Gerald Henderson. Henderson (15.1 ppg, 4.2 rpg) threes) is a solid performer, but lacks three-point range. Singler (8.8 ppg, 3.7 rpg) has averaged 11.6 ppg for February, making .414 percent of his threes. He seems to be settling into his starting role.
Ramon Sessions (10.5 ppg, 3.7 apg) and Anthony Tolliver (5.9 ppg) are the main scoring options for the Bobcats. Bismack Biyombo and rookie Cody Zeller will buttress the frontcourt.
Assuming he has recovered with the bout of dizziness that afflicted him against Cleveland, Rodney Stuckey (14.0 ppg) will again be the key Piston reserve. He wasn’t able to play in the December game, so if he can go tonight that could make a big difference. Since being moved to the bench, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has not been productive. Will Bynum will almost certainly play, as may Chauncey Billups. Extra minutes upfront will probably go to Jonas Jerebko.
Keys to the Game
Since Charlotte is also horrible at shooting threes, Detroit should be able to do a better job defending their dribble penetration, which kept them in the last game until Jefferson went to work. Hopefully there will also be a plan to limit his touches or keep him from getting good shot attempts. If the Pistons cannot contain one of the NBA’s weaker offenses, it could be a long night. The "Big Three" should be able to score inside, but Jennings and Singler will need to make shots, too. Detroit actually shot 12-23 on threes in the December game, which made that defeat all the more befuddling. Winners of five of their last six home games, and with their playoff hopes clearly on the line, the Pistons should be expected to play their best basketball tonight in front of their fans.