Pre-Game

Gameday: Pistons @ Raptors, Feb. 26

A first look at the East’s newest All-Star pairing.

Things did not go the way the Toronto Raptors intended when they came out of the All-Star break on Friday. They turned in a poor second quarter, failed to execute down the stretch, and came up on the wrong end of an overtime decision against the Milwaukee Bucks. It lead to some hand-wringing about the team’s late-game offense – something that’s gradually improving in the qualitative but hasn’t produced great results yet – and a practice Sunday that focused heavily on that aspect of the game. Meanwhile, the Boston Celtics were closing the gap atop the Eastern Conference to just half a game.

For the Detroit Pistons, who visit the Air Canada Centre on Monday, things have been going opposite the team’s best-laid plans for more than just one game. After a splashy acquisition of Blake Griffin in advance of the trade deadline, the Pistons railed off five consecutive wins (four with Griffin in the lineup). That momentum was halted by Griffin’s former team, a loss that set Detroit off on a 1-5 run that included a bad loss in Charlotte on Sunday. The situation is not dire, yet, the Pistons 2.5 games back of a playoff spot with 23 to go, but time is running out and the schedule is unkind from here.

Monday, then, should be a battle of two teams hungry to get back on the right foot and re-start their stretch runs more to form. For the Raptors, maintaining a spotless home record against losing teams will serve as a secondary rallying cry. For the Pistons, no extra motivation should be necessary, though maybe a potential playoff match-up with the Raptors gives them a reason to send a message. Andre Drummond should be up for it, anyway, as he and Jonas Valanciunas always have fun battles.

The game tips off at 7:30 on Sportsnet One and Sportsnet 590.

To help set the stage, I reached out to Lazarus Jackson of Detroit Bad Boys, and he was kind enough to help us out.

Blake Murphy: I have to start in the obvious place, since this is the first post-trade meeting between the Raptors and Pistons. How are the early returns on Blake Griffin? How does the fit look with Andre Drummond?

Lazarus Jackson: Blake Griffin hasn’t been as good as advertised for the Pistons, but it’s not because of the the fit with Andre Drummond – which has been adequate. It’s the rest of the (current) starting lineup that presents an issue. Starting Blake and Andre alongside non-shooters in Ish Smith and Stanley Johnson enables the defense to lay in wait around the rim for Blake’s drives and passes inside to Drummond. A defense that collapses inside has also enticed Blake into taking more three-pointers, and he’s both taking more per game (6.2 as a Piston vs 5.7 as a Clipper) and making a lower percentage (30.4 percent as a Pistons vs 34.2 percent as a Clipper). Blake’s skills and talent are still there, but the results just haven’t been.

Blake Murphy: The Pistons sit 1.5 games out of a playoff spot as of this writing, and it’s unclear which team ahead of them may be at the biggest risk of falling out of the playoff picture now that Indiana has given themselves a bit of a cushion. Where is your confidence level in terms of the Pistons pushing their way in?

Lazarus Jackson: I remain optimistic that Detroit can make the playoffs for a few reasons: Miami has struggled just as much as they have in the previous 5 games, Indiana has one of the more difficult schedules remaining (and the Pistons hold the season head-to-head tiebreaker over the Pacers), and the Pistons hope to have Reggie Jackson back before what’s looking like a make-or-break six-game West coast trip. Optimism is no substitute for reality, though – the Pistons need to start winning and soon.

Blake Murphy: Do you still own shares of Stanley Johnson stock, or have the offensive struggles been enough to force you to sell? I still like what he can be defensively, and I know he’s only 21, so my faith is hanging on despite three seasons of just unspeakably bad offensive efficiency (and on/off impact).

Lazarus Jackson: I am all-in on Stanley Johnson, who has played well after fully recovering from a hip injury – and especially well since the Blake Griffin trade. He even got the Zach Lowe shout-out! The Pistons haven’t had a great player on the wing in a long time, and have given up on a few promising ones (Khris Middleton, Robert Covington – who was in their G-League system – and not taking Caris LeVert) inbetween. As you said, he’s only 21 – it’s entirely too early to sell on him and what he could become, especially for a team like Detroit, who will need to maximize internal development to succeed any further in the short-term.

Blake Murphy: A bachelor party weekend in Atlanta…how are you alive to send this email right now?

Lazarus Jackson: Blake, it rejuvenates the soul. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to withdraw a large sum of money from an ATM for no reason in particular.

Raptors updates
The rotation played to form in the first game back, and while that’s unlikely to change much unless there are longer patterns of ineffectiveness, there were a couple of minor concerning signs. That the bench has struggled in their half-court offense at times isn’t a surprise, and they’ve gotten better as the season’s gone on, but they did struggle in the second against Milwaukee in a spot where there could potentially be a star staggered with them in the playoffs. The other would be that OG Anunoby is still struggling a bit offensively, now shooting 36.9 percent overall and 21.5 percent on threes over his last 29 games. He’s still defending well, and he deserves some time – and actual shot attempts – to show the break did him some good, but it’s worth keeping an eye on the performance of the starters, which has still been strong but has tailed off gradually in terms of net rating over the last month or so.

Otherwise, the only thing to really watch is whether Norman Powell gets spot run again at any point soon and which of the Raptors 905 contingent draw in as the 13th man with both teams in Toronto for this one.

PG: Kyle Lowry, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell
SF: OG Anunoby, C.J. Miles
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
OUT: None
TBD: None
905: Malachi Richardson, Alfonzo McKinnie, Malcolm Miller, Lorenzo Brown

Pistons updates
Sometimes, there are the tiniest of silver linings in blow-out losses. I mean, not really, but with the Pistons in the midst of six games in nine days and a big west coast trip around the corner, they can at least convince themselves that getting pasted by the Hornets on Sunday rather than playing to a close finish will pay dividends Sunday. No Piston played more than 32 minutes in the 16-point loss, and with a 1 p.m. tip, they had more time than usual to rest up for the second night of a back-to-back. Rest was on their mind even prior to that one, too, as Stan Van Gundy had indicated he’d try to lean on depth a bit more during this stretch, particularly in the form of backup center Eric Moreland, who had nine rebounds in 11 minutes against Charlotte.

Outside of potentially expanding the rotation, Van Gundy still appears to be figuring out what his best rotation looks like. Jameer Nelson would seem to be ahead of Dwight Buycks and Luke Kennard ahead of Langston Galloway, the starters are set – with a plus-6.4 net rating in 190 minutes as a fivesome – until Reggie Jackson returns, and James Ennis has been as nice a fit as anticipated. Things have not gone quite to form, and there’s some urgency setting in to find a rotation pattern that keeps the Pistons competitive without burning Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond out by a playoff series they may not get to (a rest paradox, of sorts). Griffin and Drummond have now played 228 minutes together, by the way, and the Pistons have outscored teams by 4.7 points per-100 possessions in those minutes, so that duo is not most pressing issue, even as they work to develop chemistry.

PG: Ish Smith, Jameer Nelson, Dwight Buycks
SG: Reggie Bullock, Luke Kennard, Langston Galloway
SF: Stanley Johnson, James Ennis
PF: Blake Griffin, Anthony Tolliver, Henry Ellenson
C: Andre Drummond, Eric Moreland
OUT: Reggie Jackson, Jon Leuer
TBD: None
Grand Rapids: Reggie Hearn, Kay Felder

The line
The Raptors are 11-point favorites with a 218 over-under. The spread opened at Raptors -9.5 and quickly moved, though I wouldn’t be surprised to see it get back to single digits.

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