6:00 PM EST, NBA TV – Line: Detroit -1, Over/Under: 206.5
Two of the more pleasant surprises this season meet today in the Motor City, as the Detroit Pistons host the Portland Trail Blazers at the Palace of Auburn Hills. At this juncture both teams share plenty in common, as they each currently occupy the fringes of their respective postseason races, while exceeding modest expectations after parting ways with talented players. For the Blazers (33-30, 2nd in Northwest Division), very few thought that they would even be in contention this late in the season, particularly after the mass exodus of players during the Offseason. Of course, the big loss was All Star Forward LaMarcus Aldridge, the most sought-after Free Agent of the Summer who inked a lucrative deal with the San Antonio Spurs. However, he was far from the only one to blaze a trail out of Portland; versatile Swingman Nicolas Batum signed with the Charlotte Hornets, while Sharpshooting Wesley Matthews joined the Dallas Mavericks, with starting Center Robin Lopez traveling to the Big Apple signing with the New York Knicks. In the matter of a month, Head Coach Terry Stotts suddenly found himself without four-fifths of his starting lineup, which is certainly a death sentence for a young team trying to keep their heads above water in the wild Western Conference. So what on Earth is veteran skipper to do, you ask? Simply put, coach his ass off. That is precisely what Stotts did, guiding this young developing team to the seventh seed in the West. Granted, they got off to an inauspicious start (15-24), but since January 10th, Portland has gone a resounding 18-6, the third-best mark in the league during that span. Even without so many potent weapons, the Blazers remain one of the more prolific offensive teams in the league, averaging a solid 103.6 points (8th Overall) on 45.0% shooting from the field (14th Overall), including 36.3% from beyond the arc (5th Overall), while posting a 51.0% Effective Field Goal Percentage, which is adjusted for the significance of the three-pointer, good for ninth in the league. And though they don’t miss very many shots, they’ve proven quite proficient on the offensive glass, compiling 11.7 offensive rebounds per game (3rd Overall), doing so on a healthy 26.3% of their shot attempts (3rd Overall), which gives you an idea of the work rate that Stotts is receiving from his charges. But at the end of the day, it’s been their Backcourt that has positioned where they currently reside, as Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum have emerged as one of the most dynamic pair of Guards in the league. A known commodity, Lillard has taken his game to another level, averaging 25.8 points on 43.1% shooting from the field, including 37.6% from three, along with 4.2 rebounds, 6.9 assists, and 1.0 steal, all the while posting a team-best 23.5 PER (Player Efficiency Rating). With that said, the ascension of McCollum has been an outright revelation, as the Junior has laid serious claim to the title of the NBA’s Most Improved Player. As a Sophomore last season, the Shooting Guard out of LeHigh posted a rather modest stat line of 6.8 points per game on 43.6% shooting from the field, 1.5 rebounds, and 1.0 assist in just 15.7 minutes of action, but with the benefit of added paying time has exploded onto the scene, making the Blazers’ Front Office look like a cadre of geniuses in letting the likes of Matthews and Batum walk in Free Agency. Now in 35.0 minutes a night, McCollum has averaged 20.9 points on 44.5% shooting from the floor, including a blistering 41.0% from downtown, including 3.5 rebounds, 4.2 assists, and 1.1 steals, with his point total representing one of the largest single season jumps in recent memory. These two would undoubtedly relish another shot at the Pistons, who hammered them 120-103 waaaaay back on November 8th; Lillard and McCollum accounted for forty-four points, eight rebounds, and thirteen assists, yet nine turnovers in defeat, as Portland blew a thirteen-point Fourth Quarter Lead at the Moda Center, as the visitors blew them away over the final stanza, outscoring them 41-11.
Meanwhile, it’s been a similar story in the Eastern Conference, as the upstart Pistons (31-30, 3rd in Central Division) have eschewed low expectations to place themselves in the mix for the Eighth and Final Seed in the East. In his second year on the sideline, Stan Van Gundy has delved deeper in this restoration project, evolving the roster to his preferred schemes, which was no easy task given the lopsided rotation he inherited a season ago. Gone are the likes of Josh Smith and Greg Monroe, while Brandon Jennings was jettisoned at the Trade Deadline as Detroit acquired the services of Tobias Harris, who is a natural fit for the veteran skipper’s wide-open system which places a huge emphasis on spacing. Back when he was guiding the Orlando Magic to the NBA Finals, Van Gundy thrived with an extremely talented big man (Dwight Howard), surrounded by a plethora of shooters (Rashard Lewis, Hedo Turkoglu, J.J. Reddick), forcing defenses to commit to stopping one while leaving them dangerously exposed to the other. So with that said, anyone can see that he is following that very same blueprint to a tee. At Center, 22-year old Andre Drummond may just be the most promising young Big in the game today, improving his game across the board, averaging 16.7 points on 52.0% shooting from the floor, along with an NBA-best 15.0 rebounds, 1.6 steals, and 1.5 blocks. In fact, there are many a night when the Junior resembles a young Howard, particularly on the defensive end of the court. Just ask the Trail Blazers how tough this guy is to handle; when they met back in earlier November, Drummond was simply dominant, totaling twenty-nine points (14-of-19, 73.7%) and twenty-seven rounds, not to mention a pair of steals and three blocks. In fact, his nine offensive boards were more than the Portland was able to secure as a team (seven). Then again, he wasn’t the only Piston that made an impression that night, as Reggie Jackson scored a game-high forty points on 15-of-26 shooting (57.7%), along with five rebounds, five assists, and a pair of steals. Their big in-season acquisition last year, Jackson (19.3 points, 6.1 assists) has proven to be a much better fit than the recently departed Jennings, whose terribly inconsistent play simply didn’t fit into Van Gundy’s long term plans at Point Guard. However, it remains to be seen just what this year’s major in-season acquisition, the aforementioned Harris, will bring to the table; the versatile 6-9 Forward is an ideal “Three & D” player that can stroke it from deep (45.5%), while providing solid defense on the opposite end of the court, creating significant spacing for Drummond to work within the post. His arrival has also given Van Gundy the luxury of playing with a multitude of lineups, as he can play Harris at his true position of Small Forward, or slide him over the Four in smaller groupings that favor shooting over size. Ironically though, the emphasis on shooting and spacing has turned them into one of the more improved defensive teams in the league, with their overall length and versatility making life hard on their opponents. The Pistons have allowed a sound 100.5 points (10th Overall) on 45.9% shooting from the field (20th Overall), while pulling down 46.3 rebounds (5th Overall), and yielding just 21.1 assists (7th Overall).