NBA Preview: Detroit Pistons

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Last season: They are a rebuilding team, so you don’t expect them to be good and the 25-41 record reflected that. But they flew under a lot of people’s radar because they are just not that interesting to watch. They are not good on offense, not good on defense, they have a couple nice players but not the kind of explosive, dynamic players that make you stop flipping channels. If Piston fans want to know why Greg Monroe goes unnoticed it is that – the team is uninteresting to watch.

Key Departures: Finally, slowly, GM Joe Dumars seems to be starting to do away with the veterans on the roster and commit fully to the rebuild. At least let’s hope so. Ben Gordon was sent packing for the expiring contract and big arms of Corey Maggette. Ben Wallace also seems about to retire. We think. But you never know.

Key Additions: They picked up the big risk/big reward player of this last draft in Andre Drummond, the big man out of Connecticut. I like the pick, it was a good risk for them. He’s young, his effort is immature (meaning inconsistent) and his offensive game is immature as well. If he puts in the work and grows up, in four years he could be the second best player in this draft and a steal. Or, he could be a bust.

Also added are Corey Maggette and rookies Kim English, Khris Middleton and Kyle Singler.

Three keys to the Pistons season:

1) Will Greg Monroe keep improving, and will anyone notice? It’s not just fans and media that underrate and overlook Monroe — he did not get a USA Select Team invite this summer when he should have. Last season he put up much better numbers than Roy Hibbert — Monroe had more points, more rebounds, shot a higher percentage and Monroe had a PER of 22, Hibbert 16.8 — but everyone raves about Hibbert because we see the Pacers. We see him.

Monroe also is not flashy — he scores on little jump hooks and clever moves around the rim, not thundering dunks. He’s not a highlight machine. What he is maybe the second best center in the East (behind Andrew Bynum) and he is just entering his third season. If he keeps improving people will not be able to ignore him anymore — and there is no reason to think he will not get better. He needs to improve most on the defensive end, he needs to get stronger. He needs to be a force on both ends of the floor. He is not yet complete. But he shouldn’t be overlooked.

2) How will Lawrence Frank fit together a roster with redundant parts? Monroe may be spending more time at the four this season because the Pistons need to let Andre Drummond learn on the job. That gives the Pistons maybe the biggest front line outside of Los Angeles but it means coach Frank needs to get similar players to work well together.

It’s the same thing in the backcourt — the Pistons finally moved Rodney Stuckey from the point to the two-guard spot last season so Brandon Knight could step in. And Knight gave them 12.8 points a game but shot just 41.8 percent and still didn’t dish a higher percentage of assists to teammates than Stuckey. Knight shows some talent but he looked every part the rookie at times last season and needs to mature his game, get teammates involved more and become more efficient. Some Pistons fans are sold on him, I’m not yet.

3) Will Joe Dumars finally trade Tayshawn Prince and stop keeping veterans around? For the past couple years, the Pistons have lived in the kind of ugly middle ground of the NBA — trying to rebuild while keeping veterans on the roster so they are not too bad. That is a terrible way to rebuild. If you are going to rebuild through the draft, do what the Rockets and Magic have done and get bad so you can get picks and free up cap room. The Pistons need to go all in and get over their mistakes from the 2009 free agency period — get rid of Tayshawn Prince, Charlie Villanueva, Jason Maxiell, anyone who is not part of the rebuilding process. Go all in. (That said, with Monroe and this roster they will not be as bad as some.)

What Pistons fans should fear: Life in the middle. The worst thing to be in the NBA is a team stuck in the middle — getting between 35 and 42 wins a season, hoping to get an eighth playoff seed and get routed in the first round, never being bad enough to get a really high draft pick. You can’t improve that way. Detroit has a couple potential stars on this team, particularly along the front line, but they have to be smart and build on this now, not just live in the middle of the NBA.

How it likely works out: Another pretty middle of the road season. Monroe is going to play well whether he plays the four or the five. He should be at an All-Star level. Knight will improve, although how much remains to be seen. It may be a couple years before we know how good Drummond can be — or how good he is willing to work to be — and there are other potential guys like Singler that could be interesting. But mostly the Pistons are just not going to be very good, and not likely a playoff team.

Prediction: 31-51 but their should be hope for the future based on Monroe, based on what Drummond might be, and with that record on the chance of a good bounce in the lottery to get one more star.

Thunder star Russell Westbrook scores 45, leads 25-point comeback against Jazz

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The Thunder lost three straight games, fell behind by 25 in the second half at home and looked as if they had no interest in returning to Utah.

Then, Russell Westbrook reminded everyone why he’s a superstar.

Westbrook is a singular force who can take over a game and rally his teammates – not a liability who makes everyone around him worse. His confidence and determination in the face of calamity were invaluable tonight. He kept attacking, and as shots started to fall, he and his teammates massively increased their defensive intensity.

The result: A 107-99 Game 5 win over the Jazz that looked highly improbable 21 game minutes before it ended. But Westbrook (who finished with 45 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists) singlehandedly outscored Utah in that final stretch.

The Thunder are hardly out of the woods yet. They still trail 3-2 in the series with Game 6 Friday in Utah. Teams with home-court advantage in a best-of-seven series with a road Game 6 win it just 37% of the time. Those teams win the series just 26% of the time.

But thanks to Westbrook, Paul George (34 points) and plain all-around defensive effort, Oklahoma City still has a shot. At minimum, the Thunder won’t send George into unrestricted free agency with four straight losses.

Not that Oklahoma City erased all concerns.

Rudy Gobert devoured the Thunder’s offense in the paint – at least while he could avoid the foul trouble. Utah was +7 in Gobert’s 30 minutes and -8 in the 18 minutes he sat.

The Thunder made most of their comeback with Carmelo Anthony on the bench. They continued to play well once he returned in the fourth quarter, but by then, the Jazz had lost all rhythm.

Utah – led by Jae Crowder‘s 27 points – looks deeper. Anthony was still Oklahoma City’s third-leading scorer with just seven points.

And the Thunder haven’t won in Salt Lake City this series.

But they’ll make another trip there. Considering where this game and series looked midway through the third quarter tonight, that’s a heck of an accomplishment.

Another massive third quarter lifts Rockets past Timberwolves into second round

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We saw this movie just a couple of nights before, but Rockets fans love the ending and would gladly pay to see it 12 more times this postseason.

Much like Game 4, the Rockets were down at the half in Game 5 Wednesday after having played disinterested defense and with cold shooting from their stars (James Harden and Chris Paul combined to go 3-of-16 from the floor). Minnesota was up 59-55 and had hope.

Then the third quarter the Rockets flipped the switch. Again.

Harden had 15 points in the third — matching the Timberwolves as a team. Minnesota started to double Harden and take the ball out of his hands (especially late in the shot clock), but he often moved the rock and it led to open threes — the Rockets were 6-of-10 from three in the quarter. Houston won the third 30-15, not as overwhelming as the 50-point quarter the game before but once again enough to comfortably pull away from Minnesota and cruise in for a 122-104 win.

With that, the Rockets win the series 4-1 and now await the winner of the Utah vs. Oklahoma City series.

In that series, the Rockets will need to play with more consistent focus than they brought against the Timberwolves — they can’t just play a couple of good halves in the next series and expect that to be enough. Unlike Minnesota, those teams in the next round will make Houston pay a steep price for a lack of focus.

Houston got a massive night from Clint Capela, who led the Rockets with 26 points and 15 rebounds, running the rim hard in transition and making plays inside while the rest of the Rockets launched threes over the top.

Harden finished with 24 points and 12 assists, and Eric Gordon had 19 off the bench in the win.

Minnesota had 23 points from Karl-Anthony Towns and 17 from an energized Jeff Teague.

For the Timberwolves, a team with elite young talent, this was a glimpse of what it will take to reach the heights they envision. This was a good step — the franchise’s first trip to the playoffs since 2004 is not to be diminished. It matters. But there are higher levels this team can attain. Defensively they have to be better, offensively they need to feed Towns more and play to their strengths better. It’s a work in progress.

Houston just showed them where they want to be.

Hawks, coach Mike Budenholzer agree to part ways

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This was expected.

It was pretty obvious Mike Budenholzer didn’t want to stick around and lose a lot of games with the Atlanta Hawks as they rebuild the next few years, especially after he had been stripped of his GM powers. Budenholzer went well down the road with the Phoenix Suns about their open coaching position before thinking better of it. Since then he has set up a meeting with the Knicks about their coaching vacancy, a job he reportedly wants badly.

At this point there was no need for the Hawks and Budenholzer to continue their sham marriage, so they have agreed to amicably separate, a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and since confirmed by the Hawks.

Budenholzer said this to Wojnarowski of ESPN:

“I am grateful for the five years that I spent as coach of the Atlanta Hawks, and will always cherish the incredible contributions, commitment and accomplishments of the players that I was fortunate enough to work with here,” Budenholzer told ESPN on Wednesday night. “From ownership to management, support staff to the community, I’ll look back with great pride on what we were able to achieve together with the Hawks.”

For Budenholzer, the long-time Spurs assistant and a strong Xs and Os coach, look for him to both push for the Knicks job and be in the running if/when the Milwaukee Bucks job opens up whenever their season ends. In both cases he’s a fit — those are teams that need a culture and system reset, and Budenholzer proved he can bring that to Atlanta (that was a good team before they let Al Horford and Paul Millsap walk for nothing).

With Atlanta, they likely will turn to a top assistant coach who will get a chance to develop young players on that team (and not cost Atlanta as much as an established coach). Stephen Silas of the Hornets is a rumored name, but there are others.

LeBron James overrules controversial finish with game-winning 3-pointer (video)

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LeBron James‘ turnover with the game tied late looked like a bad call. LeBron’s block of Victor Oladipo on the ensuing possession looked like a goaltend.

Did the Cavaliers get robbed of a crucial possession? Did the Pacers get robbed of two go-ahead points?

LeBron nullified those questions with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to give Cleveland a 98-95 win and a 3-2 series lead. The game-winner capped a great game by LeBron (44 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists) and moves the Cavs to the verge of advancing.

When a team with home-court advantage can close out a best-of-seven series with a road Game 6, it has 52% of the time. It has won the series 92% of the time.

The odds are even better with LeBron. LeBron has won 11 straight closeout games, nine of them on the road. He’ll have another opportunity Friday with Game 6 in Indiana.