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Pistons vs. Thunder preview: Thunder rolling, Pistons plummeting

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The two teams have been on starkly different paths since Dec. 1.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Oklahoma City Thunder Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The Oklahoma City Thunder have hit the jet-boosters over the past couple of months, and are finally starting to look like the contender in the West most projected to start this season. The Detroit Pistons, on the other hand? Their woes have continued, as they most recently snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in an overtime loss at home to the Utah Jazz (20-28), this past Wednesday.

Remember early December? Most people were looking forward to the holidays and the Pistons were rollin’. Times were good. For the Thunder, their team seemed broken, the locker room appeared disheartened, and last season’s MVP didn’t look himself. Since then, these teams’ fortunes have dramatically shifted.

On Dec 1, the Detroit Pistons were 14-6, ranked second in the Eastern Conference, and seemed en route to a top four or five seed in the playoffs. Since then they’ve compiled a record of 8-18, and are now two games back from the eighth seed (22-24).

The Thunder started December with a record of 8-12. They went a respectful 12-5 that month, and followed it up in January with an 8-3 record to date. They’re now 28-20, sitting at fifth in the Western Conference, and Russell Westbrook is looking his casual MVP self.

Game Vitals:

Where: Little Caesars Arena, Detroit, MI
When: 5:00 p.m. EST
Watch: FSN Detroit, NBA League Pass
Odds: OKC -3.5

Analysis:

If Detroit is going to have any shot at stealing this game from the Thunder, they’ll have to find a way to slow down the one-man wrecking crew that is Russell Westbrook. In Westbrook’s last 15 games, he’s averaged 29.2 points, 10 assists and 9.5 rebounds, all while shooting 50 percent from the floor. He’s also accumulated 14 triple doubles to date.

Westbrook is no longer trying to make sure that he, Carmelo Anthony and Paul George all have the same amount of shots, but is now making sure he puts his stamp on the games, and allowing the rest to follow. MVP Russ has returned, and this is a major concern for the home team.

Detroit will also have their hands full in containing recent All-Star snub (don’t let Stan Van Gundy read this preview), Paul George. In his new role as second option, George is averaging a conservative 21 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.0 assists, while shooting 43 percent from the floor and 42 percent from three. He’s also drumming up serious Defensive Player of the Year chatter. George is OKC’s best perimeter defender (poor Andre Roberson doesn’t even have that title anymore) and he’s leading the league in steals (2.2 per game) AND tipped passes (4.4 per game). Per ESPN’s Royce Young:

There hasn’t been too much to celebrate recently for the Pistons, but one thing guy you should keep your eye on is Stanley Johnson. In Detroit’s last three home games, Johnson has averaged 10 points, 3 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game, and is still playing the tenacious brand of defense he’s known for. Just because Detroit is not winning games as of late, that does not mean these games are meaningless to Detroit’s success long-term. The steady improvement from their younger players is crucial for a possible playoff run this season, and for seasons to come.

Projected Lineups:

Oklahoma City: Russell Westbrook, Andre Roberson, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, Steven Adams

Detroit: Langston Galloway, Avery Bradley, Stanley Johnson, Tobias Harris, Andre Drummond

Prediction:

Detroit 99, OKC 108