Pre-Game

Gameday: Raptors @ Pistons, March 7

Jakob better.

The Toronto Raptors improved to 27-2 against sub-.500 teams with their win against the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday night. Despite what the scoreline may suggest through three quarters, they were able to do so without playing any high-leverage minutes.

They’ll be looking to extend that success in Detroit on Wednesday night when they face a Pistons team fresh off a loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday.

Fred VanVleet may be in for the lion’s share of the backup minutes against the Pistons depending on how stubbed Delon Wright’s toe is, and so we might be in for a big performance from him. The last time these two teams played, Jurassic Spark provided 64 of the team’s 123 points, but managed it without any bench player scoring more than Pascal Siakam’s 11.

Detroit are staring down the barrel four games behind in the loss column for the eighth and final playoff spot and still have a six-game West coast road swing beginning March 13 to come. This really is a slow death march.

The only real intrigue that comes with this game is courtesy of the fact that all six wins for the Pistons with Griffin have come against teams on the second night of a back-to-back. They are 6-9 overall since the Griffin trade.

The game tips off at 8:00 p.m. ET on TSN 4 & 5 and if you’re looking to listen in, TSN Radio 1050’s got you covered.

Duncan Smith of The Athletic and BBallBreakdown was kind enough to answer some questions to help set the stage:

Vivek Jacob: It’s been dark days since Blake Griffin faced his former team. After an eye-opening 4-0 start to his Pistons career, Detroit has gone 2-9 with the fourth-worst offensive rating during that period at 100.8 (per NBA.com). They also have the worst true shooting at 51.2 percent. Is this just a case of a team missing their starting point guard and in need of a training camp?

Duncan Smith: Both of those are certainly factors. This roster fits together poorly and is a far cry from the DHO (dribble hand-off)/movement gameplan that they began the season with, utilizing Andre Drummond, Avery Bradley, Reggie Jackson and Tobias Harris. The roster is injury ravaged and has largely been turned over via trade, so getting their offensive cornerstone back in Jackson and some time to acclimate in a structured format like training camp can only help.

Vivek Jacob: Blake Griffin’s free-throw rate is significantly down (29.1 percent vs. 42.1 percent career) and he’s now only attempting 20.9 percent of his shots within three feet of the basket compared to a career-rate of 37 percent (33.7 percent with the Clippers this season). He’s obviously made an effort to change with the times and is shooting five 3-pointers a game now, but is point-perimeter-Blake the best Blake? Have injuries taken their toll to the point where power-Blake is in the rear-view?

Duncan Smith: Blake Griffin does not excel from behind the arc relative to the volume he puts forth. He’s shooting 29.5 percent from three as a Piston and 32.8 percent on the season, including his play with the Clippers. Unfortunately, younger and more explosive Blake is his best version, and that’s not coming back. He deserves a lot of credit for modernizing his game, but it remains something of a work in progress.

Vivek Jacob: James L. Edwards III recently wrote for The Athletic about the dilemma the Pistons face in having Stan Van Gundy in a dual role as both head coach and team president. It seems just a matter of time before he’s stripped of his role as president, but do you see him playing out the final year of his deal? It appears highly unlikely that the Pistons can sneak into that 8th spot at this point in time. Do you think he’s worth being patient with to at least see what he can do with a Griffin-Drummond frontcourt over a full season?

Duncan Smith: A report from The Sporting News indicated that Stan Van Gundy is coaching for his job, at least one of the two. After four seasons, we’ve reached a point where this is the team he built, with the players he has selected, executing his gameplan. If the coach/executive was not Stan Van Gundy, which the kind of equity his career brings to the table, it’s very unlikely we would even be debating whether his job is worth saving. Maybe he has a master plan he can enact with the healthy trio of Jackson, Griffin and Drummond with a training camp, but there’s reason to wonder for the first time in the Van Gundy era if perhaps he’s not the man for the job.

Vivek Jacob: Drummond and Jonas Valanciunas appear to be developing a bit of a friendly rivalry. Both were seen as big, plodding centers who were steadily declining in value in today’s NBA. Both have created value for themselves by making reads and creating out of the high post, although the Detroit center has been asked to do so more often and has been plenty effective at it. While Valanciunas has added the three-point shot to his game, Drummond has been markedly improved at the free-throw line. What’s the next phase of Drummond’s development?

Duncan Smith: Drummond’s development this season has been astounding, but there needs to be more. His rim protection is improved but inconsistent, and his finishing around the rim can be suspect. He’s largely a different player this season than last, and the future should be bright for Drummond in Detroit.

Vivek Jacob: If Detroit are to pull off the upset in Toronto, what needs to happen?

Duncan Smith: The Pistons will be helped out significantly by the fact that the Raptors will be playing the second game of a back-to-back. In fact, the only teams the Pistons have beaten since the Griffin trade have been on the back end of those games. That said, the Raptors are a different beast than the road-weary squads the Pistons have been picking off. If the home team is to win, fatigue needs to play a significant factor.

Raptors updates

The Raptors should remain status quo from the game the previous night against the Hawks, unless Delon Wright’s stubbed toe is more serious than anyone let on.

Nigel Hayes could land himself an opportunity, I suppose, and Alfonzo McKinnie would be the most likely candidate to sit out if that were to happen.

Malcolm Miller has fared well in a starting role just by virtue of coloring inside the lines and executing the tasks assigned to his role: play strong defense, help space the floor, and play-make if and when necessary.

PG: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell
SF: Malcolm Miller, C.J. Miles, Alfonzo McKinnie
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
OUT: OG Anunoby
TBD: Delon Wright, Nigel Hayes
905: Malachi Richardson, Lorenzo Brown

Pistons updates

I wasn’t a fan of the Blake Griffin-Andre Drummond fit, but I didn’t see things going south this quickly for them either. Gone are the days when Griffin thought they might be able to make a run in the Eastern Conference playoffs, and instead they now seemed destined for the lottery.

With the improved play of both Reggie Bullock and James Ennis III, Luke Kennard has fallen out of the rotation and has seen his minutes in the single digits in three of the past four games. On a team desperate for scoring and outside shooting, though, it would seem they could still find a way to fit him in, especially with Reggie Jackson still out.

On the Jackson front, it appears his ankle still has some steps to take to be healthy enough to play, at least according to Stan Van Gundy.

“He’s okay, but there’s nothing imminent with him,” said Van Gundy. “He’s doing his rehab and he did a little bit of 1-on-1 against one of the video guys today, but that’s as far along as he is.”

Get set for a decent dose of Dwight Buycks, who, based on last couple of games, has moved ahead of Jameer Nelson in the rotation. That being said, Nelson’s frame may be better equipped to cope with the likes of Lowry and VanVleet, so SVG could turn that way if he wanted to.

PG: Ish Smith, Dwight Buycks, Jameer Nelson
SG: Reggie Bullock, Luke Kennard, Langston Galloway
SF: James Ennis III, Stanley Johnson
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 5.5-point favorites with a 213 over/under. The odds makers have much respect for the Pistons’ record against teams on the second night of a back-to-back.

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