Having lost at Boston Sunday night, the 24-39 Pistons will get their best chance at a win for the next two weeks with the arrival of the 22-41 Kings. They lost 104-89 in Brooklyn on Sunday, as the shooting guard they traded away, Marcus Thornton, scorched them for 27 points. They feature one of the league’s worst defenses, giving up an average of 103.8 points per game.
But as Detroit showed in giving up 118 points to a Celtics’ squad that had averaged only 95.3 ppg (27th), their defense can leak more than a busted radiator. Sacramento can score (101.5 ppg – 13th), so this contest could easily become a shootout. In DeMarcus Cousins, Rudy Gay and Isaiah Thomas, the Kings have three prolific scorers who average over 20 ppg.
A win could keep the Pistons within easy reach of the eighth playoff seed in the Eastern Conference, which 27-35 Atlanta is clinging to in spite of being mired in a 2-14 streak. With last night’s defeat of Philadelphia, New York sits at 25-40. Cleveland (24-40) is riding Detroit’s bumper. Charlotte (30-34) is securely sitting at the seventh spot. The last team to qualify could post the worst win-loss record to earn a postseason berth in recent league history. Whether this is an "honor" worth fighting for is debatable.
Power Forward: Greg Monroe versus Jason Thompson. Thompson (7.4 ppg, 6.4 rebounds per game) has seen his usage decline this season. Since he has teammates who are happy to do all the shooting, his main challenge will be to play defense. Monroe (14.9 ppg, 9.1 rpg) has gotten more shots the last three games (52) and (surprise!) has responded with his first three game streak of 20-point games. But since Detroit lost all three in spite of his .538 percent shooting, it must be his fault.
Small Forward: Josh Smith versus Rudy Gay. Gay (20.2 ppg, 6.2 rpg) has enjoyed a surprising resurgence with the Kings, shooting less and more efficiently than at any time in his career. Smith (16.5 ppg, 7.1 rpg) scored 28 points (making half of his shots) versus the Celtics, but has hit only .350 percent for March. His first priority needs to be containing Gay, rather than leading his team in shots taken (16.1 per game).
Center: Andre Drummond versus DeMarcus Cousins. Cousins (22.4 ppg, 11.6 rpg) has become one of the NBA’s most productive big men this year, and is shooting a career high .490 percent. He’s scored 30 points or more nine times. Drummond (13.2 ppg, 13.1 rbg) will need help to slow down Cousins. Foul trouble could limit minutes for both of these young centers, so the team that is best able to employ that strategy could come out on top.
Point Guard: Brandon Jennings versus Isaiah Thomas. Thomas (20.4 ppg, 6.3 assists per game) may be pint-size, but he’s a fearless scorer. Jennings (16.5 ppg, 8.0 apg) has been shooting less (and more accurately) lately, mostly because Coach John Loyer has been making more use of Will Bynum in the fourth quarter.
Shooting Guard: Kyle Singler versus Ben McLemore. McLemore (7.7 ppg) has returned to the starting line-up since Thornton was traded. The rookie hasn’t shot well (.364 percent), but with no illusions about reaching the playoffs, his team is focused on developing him. Singler (9.3 ppg, 3.6 rpg) has shot poorly in March after a torrid February. If he can regain his three-point stroke that will give Detroit a major lift.
The Kings’ Derrick Williams (8.5 ppg, 4.1 rpg) leads one of the league’s worst reserve units. Detroit native Ray McCallum, Jr. has been seeing significant playing time of late, and has averaged 9.0 ppg in March.
Piston Will Bynum (9.1 ppg, 3.4 apg) has assumed a more prominent role since Coach Loyer took the wheel, with mixed results. Rodney Stuckey (13.3 ppg) has been inconsistent of late. Jonas Jerebko will get the leftover minutes in the frontcourt. The Pistons’ defense has been abysmal under Loyer, who has relegated rookie Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to spot minutes. Coincidence?
Keys to the Game
Defense anyone? If either squad treats this game as something other than an All-Star exhibition, they will have the edge. The frontcourt must cooperate to contain Cousins. Smith must not allow Gay open perimeter shots. There is no reason to hope that Jennings will do anything to curtail Thomas. On offense, Detroit must continue featuring Monroe, and also see if going to Drummond in the post will draw some fouls on Cousins. Their greater depth should give an edge to the Pistons. If they lose, their playoff aspirations will take another hit, and it’s time to question if they’ll even match last season’s 29 wins.