In truth, this should have been one of those forgettable games in late February between a hump of an Eastern Conference team (the Pistons) and your favourite team (the Raptors). Detroit can play Toronto tough, and has at times — for example, in a 102-101 Raps’ loss, uh, last season — but mostly the games are lost to the sands of time.
Except now the Pistons are trying something. They’re currently 28-31, in ninth place, and coming off two losses in a row (and five of their last six), which is not great considering that “something” was trading a chunk of the team for Blake Griffin and trying to fight their way into the playoffs. But these are the risks a franchise takes sometimes.
It’s also worth noting that the Raptors are coming off an aforementioned tough loss on Friday night to the Milwaukee Bucks. Toronto is still in first by half a game, but it’ll be interesting to see how they respond to because it’s: a) the next game after loss, b) the second game after their sizable vacation, c) the first game against a new-look possible first round opponent, d) the next game in their battle to hold onto first place.
Somehow, this Monday game against the forgettable Pistons means something now. So here are the details. Let us prepare.
Where to Watch
Sportsnet One, 7:30pm
Toronto - Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, OG Anunoby, Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valancuinas
Detroit - Ish Smith, Stanley Johnson, Reggie Bullock, Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond
Toronto - None! Shhhh, don’t hex it.
Detroit - Reggie Jackson (right ankle), Jon Leuer (left ankle)
The Power of the Front Court Duo
When the Pistons traded for Griffin it was seen as an all-in move. He’s 28 years old and coming off some injuries; he’s lost a bit of the bounce that made him a superstar; and he’s signed for $173 million bucks — yowza. It also meant Detroit had to ship off numerous players to get him.
So now the Pistons rely almost exclusively on the pairing of Griffin and their long-time centre Drummond to get things done. It worked for a little while (five straight wins!) but now the Pistons are back to listing again. Still, Griffin is putting up 20 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 5.4 assists per game, while Drummond is up to 15.1 points, a league-leading 15.7 rebounds (including 5.0 on the offensive end), 1.6 steals and blocks, and he’s somehow doing things like this:
Wait a second when did Andre Drummond become a point guard pic.twitter.com/eiwTjsoSQj— Rob Perez (@World_Wide_Wob) February 25, 2018
Heads up! I mention all of this because it is a concern for the Raptors. They’ve had their difficulties rebounding the ball, and bigger lineups means they’ve got to stick with Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka for longer stretches of the game. It’s not the worst — since JV randomly owns Drummond — but it does lessen the impact of Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam. (Jak in particular just gets straight up bullied; sorry, son.) Fortunately, there are other solutions. Join me in the next section.
The Raptors Have All the Guards
Have you seen the Pistons’ guard rotation as of late? The team starts Ish Smith, a legit speedy pain, but then has to rely on Stanley Johnson (it’s not working), and the undead swingman Reggie Bullock. Off the bench? Here comes Luke Kennard (it’s not quite working), James Ennis (whomst?), and, brace yourself, Jameer Nelson. Folks, this does not inspire a lot of terror — even if Nelson inexplicably goes off for a bunch of random highlight plays and, like, a 10-and-5 night. Good lord, just retire already.
Meanwhile the Raptors have an All-Star backcourt in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, and one of the best bench guard rotations in the league. It’s so good they don’t even play Norman Powell anymore, which is wild. Add to the fact that the one guy on the Pistons who could have presumably given DeRozan trouble was traded — so long Avery Bradley! — and you really start to see how this game is likely to go. Sure, the Pistons have a name brand advantage in the frontcourt, but they’ll have no way to reasonably slow down Lowry and DeRozan — to say nothing of Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet. Good luck!
The Bounce Back Feelings
Really though, the main thing to watch for here is how the Raptors respond. This concerns me greatly. The team had a nice week of vacation to get themselves together, but then got bullied for long stretches of their first game back in their overtime loss to the Bucks. Yes, we got to see the Jonas Valanciunas Game-Tying Dunk, a truly joyous thing, but we also got reminded that despite being in first place, the Raptors are sometimes beatable.
Now, the Pistons aren’t the Bucks, but as coach Dwane Casey will tell you: any team can beat anybody in this league on any given night. Will the Raptors get back to playing with crisp execution, as they were during their recent seven-game win streak? If they find themselves in a tight game with Detroit, will they step into a more potent crunch time offense? Will the all-bench lineup — which looked shaky for a time against Milwaukee — be able to bounce back as well?
These all feel like worthwhile questions. And now, if we’re back to be honest with each other, I’ll admit: that’s not a bad thing to have for some random game in February.