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The Close Out: Pistons bounce back but it’s too little, too late

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Detroit goes 3-1 last week but the postseason remains the longest of long-shots.

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Detroit Pistons Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Cleaning the Glass has become one of my very favorite basketball-junkie websites. The site’s mastermind, Ben Falk, was previously the VP of Basketball Strategy with the 76ers & Analytics Manager with the Blazers. It combines the best of all worlds as it’s heavy on analytics while mixing in film work and assorted articles. (FYI, there is also a paywall, but for me, it’s been well worth it).

In Portland, Falk was part of the 2012-13 Blazers team that went 33-49 and also a part of the 2013-14 squad team that went 54-28. How does a team improve by 21 games in a single year? What was the big change?

According to a recent Falk article, the answer is largely due to Robin Lopez.

Portland was looking to re-haul their defensive scheme and Lopez was the exact fit they needed: a big man to play back, guard the rim using principles of verticality, and box out.

Rightfully, Falk didn’t extend all the credit for Portland’s turnaround to Lopez, rather it was an example of how the whole is greater than the sum. Lopez didn’t move the name notoriety meter in the summer of 2013 but he did move the team chemistry meter which turned out to be just as important.

So:

Maybe?

Reggie Jackson’s shot making and creating is a precise fit alongside the versatile Blake Griffin and athletic Andre Drummond. Throw in a the sharp-shooting of Reggie Bullock and Luke Kennard alongside some creativity, and suddenly, the offense doesn’t resemble the current 26th raked version we’ve seen all year. Jackson isn’t Chris Paul but he doesn’t need to be.

With a little more tape to go over, we’ll explore the return of Jackson next week. For now - mostly because I’m still bitter about this season - we’ll stick with the opponents’ outlook. Below are examples of the Bulls reenacting the Pistons, a look at James Harden’s isolation game and how the Houston Rockets defended Griffin’s bully-ball.

Inside the Pistons’ opponents playbook

Like any team, the Pistons’ opponents have a go-to collection of sets and play types. Here we’ll break down the plays used often by the Pistons’ opponents, along with variations and break down the process and the results.

Sacramento

Replacing the roll-man in a standard pick-and-roll is a universal offensive strategy employed by all basketball teams north of 8th grade. Below, as the roll-man rolls, his front-court mate simply restores proper spacing by taking his place at the top-of-the-key. Doing so puts immediate pressure on the tag-man in charge of preventing a clean roll.

Above, Zach Randolph and then Skal Labissiere kindly give us an example as Blake Griffin and Anthony Tolliver are forced to tag and recover.

The Kings used an elevator door to set up a three-ball for Buddy Hield:

And a Flex package for both Hield and rookie Justin Jackson:

Phoenix

The Suns didn’t do much right in their 115-88 loss to Detroit but Troy Daniels showcased a nice shooting touch which included sinking four-of-five beyond the arc. Below, Phoenix’s decoy PNR sets up Daniels:

Ish Smith’s challenge was an afterthought on this BLOB for Daniels:

Alex Len scored on back-to-back second quarter flares:

Houston

The Rockets’ prolific offense depends on the isolation wizardry of James Harden (and Chris Paul), and, usually, it’s a worthy bet. At 1.24 PPP, Harden is in a league of his own when it comes to isolation proficiency and we’ll touch on that in a bit.

Other than a iso-heavy look, there aren’t many complicated scripts the Rockets’ players have to memorize. Instead, it’s a lot of read and react and taking what the defense is willing to give up.

Houston won despite chucking up 51 three-pointers while only connecting on 12. If you don’t think they’re a realistic threat to the Golden State Warriors, I keenly advise to reconsider.

Chicago

The Bulls are almost the exact opposite to Houston in regards to isolation use. Only five percent of all their possessions this year have came from some sort isolation, and scheme-wise, they share many similarities to the the pre-Blake Pistons.

This pick-and-pop was a Tobias Harris special:

Starting in the corner only to race around and collect DHOs and screens is strongly reminiscent of Avery Bradley and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope:

Noah Vonleh secured open looks as a screen-setter and a weakside space-creater much like an Harris / Anthony Tolliver:

Not the most sophisticated of offensive blueprints but it does look better with Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen. Another high-end draft pick from this year’s draft and the Bulls’ nucleus is starting to come together. A rather quick rebuild if I say so myself.

This Week’s Trends and Dead Ends

A closer look at the habits —both good and bad—of players, coaches, and maybe even DBB commentators. Discover what the Pistons’ opponents are doing really well, and understand what to look out for going forward.

Positive

Harden vs. Pistons

As discussed, the Rockets are highly reliant of the extraordinarily high success rate of the James Harden isolation. Harden should take home the MVP this year while some are slotting him in rarefied air.

The Pistons defended The Beard about as good as you can reasonably ask for as he had to work for every single look. Harden ended the night with an ugly 21 points on 4-of-20 shooting (0-for-8 on threes) with almost every Pistons’ player in uniform having a crack at checking him. In the end, though, Harden and Rockets left with another win.

Reggie Bullock and Stanley Johnson took the majority of defensive snaps on Harden but with the Pistons switch-happy defense, again, everyone pitched in.

Harden vs. Reggie Bullock

Bullock continues to impress on both sides of the floor. Congrats to Blake Griffin for sliding over to lend a helping hand on the last example. While that particular play had a high probability of a Harden drive, Griffin’s weakside awareness has risen with each passing game.

Harden vs. Stanley Johnson

One-on-one with an absolute superstar brings out the best of Johnson as he seemingly relishes in the opportunity to prove his worthiness.

Kennard, Tolliver vs. Harden

Kennard continues not to be the train wreck on defense that some predicted. Is he a plus defender? Not yet. Is he the slow-footed stereotypical white-guy-from-Duke bad defender? He’s not that either. He’s somewhere on the lower-end of the middle but nowhere near the league’s defensive deplorables.

Negative

The Blake Show

I was a staunch Blake Griffin-trade advocate and now, more than ever, still feel like it was the right move. Speaking only in on-court terms, if you’re not a fan of Griffin, may I ask why?

After a rough start beyond-the-arc, his long-ball is starting fall to the tune of 34 percent. Is he ever going to be a 40-percent plus guy? Probably not, but just as long as he’s not the 20-percent guy we saw early in his Pistons’ tenure is all that matters.

Making shots opens up the pump fake:

Both the Rockets and Pistons refused to hit jumpers which turned the contest into a rock fight. With Griffin, the Pistons can now play that grind-it-out style if needed. In the first half against Houston, Detroit showcased Blake’s bully-ball:

In the post, or while backing down, Houston would throw a baseline-initiated double-team at Griffin who did a reasonably favorable job of navigating through it.

In the second half, as the Rockets continued to switch any Detroit PNR, the ball would find its way to Griffin at the free throw line:

Griffin was effective, and in an ugly game, he was almost ugly enough to win.

As he gets comfortable on-court, his teammates are starting to pick up his tendencies which includes an early release:

Doing so allows for early positioning and early offense.

Both he and Luke Kennard showed off an off-hand touch:

Both he and Tolliver combined to earn four extra possessions against the Bulls:

You cannot deny the chemistry he’s developed with Reggie Bullock:

That’s about as easy as it gets. The player who has assisted on the most Bullock field goals this year? With 58, the answer is Blake Griffin.

And, finally, guys are starting to move better without the ball with Griffin in the post:

Smith, especially, has been effective by picking his spots correctly with a backing-down-Griffin.

I’m not sure what your expectations were going in but this shit takes time and it’s only starting to click.

High/Low: One Highlight, One Lowlight of the week

Not all good and bad plays are created equal. Some stick out and make you take notice. Or they’re just so funky they deserve a special place of their own.

High

Despite shading James Harden to go to his right, Harden blows by Anthony Tolliver going left:

Yeah, he does that from time to time.

Low

Buddy Hield was completely lost thanks to the off-ball movement of Luke Kennard:

De’Aaron Fox had his back, though.

Peering into the Crystal Ball

What to look for in the next week.

My bitterness for this season is only due to “what might have been.” This team should be winning more than it’s losing and it’s a shame they didn’t get a chance to prove me right with a healthy roster. I get it, though, everyone has injuries and results are the only thing that matters.

Is Reggie Jackson better than Chris Paul? Of course not but that doesn’t mean the Pistons have no chance moving forward simply because the Chris Paul-Blake Griffin-DeAndre Jordan Los Angeles Clippers didn’t produce championships. People love to compare the two team’s DNA but it’s too shallow of an argument to form a strong conclusion.

That Clippers team could go toe-to-toe with anyone on any given night. It was the untimely playoff injuries, a bizarre Josh Smith sighting, and the lack of depth surrounding the Big Three that did the Clippers in.

Detroit has nine winnable games remaining this season including at home against the Lakers, Wizards, and on the road in New York and Brooklyn.