Josh Smith gets firmer (and bigger) role at the expense of Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe

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Josh Smith, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond will remain the Detroit Pistons’ starting frontcourt.

But those three, as the numbers have indicated would work best, have their seen their minutes staggered recently.

That will continue, said Pistons coach Maurice Cheeks.

“We’ll probably have Josh Smith and any one of the bigs on the floor,” Cheeks said in a video posted by David Mayo of MLive. “It will safe to say we’ll have those guys on the floor more, as opposed to Greg and Andre.”

So, lots of Smith-Drummond and Smith-Monroe and very little Monroe-Drummond.

All three combinations have actually yielded positive net ratings as long as the third player has been on the bench. That’s pretty significant on a team with a 16-22 record and a point difference that reflects an even worse record.

Sure, the Monroe-Drummond pairing has been the least-fruitful of the three, but eliminating it almost certainly means reducing the minutes of Monroe and Drummond.

Cheeks’ new strategy has really begun to take hold in the last four games. Monroe and Drummond have played together with out another big just one minute in that span.

The starting Smith-Monroe-Drummond lineup has wisely been used less than earlier in the season, but it’s still received an average of 15 minutes in the last four games.

Let’s say Smith keeps his per-game average of 35 minutes per game (though that’s ticked up to 38 in these last four games). If the recent trend holds, 15 of those will come with Monroe and Drummond. Let’s say the other 20 are split equally with Monroe and Drummond (though some could come with neither), Smith-Monroe and Smith-Drummond each getting 10 minutes per game.

That leaves 13 minutes for Monroe and Drummond to split – not share, because Cheeks said he wants to avoid that pairing (unless Smith is on the court too, which makes it significantly less effective).

Take it all together, and in this plan, Monroe and Drummond are each averaging 31.5 minutes per game. Of course, one of the two could get more minutes, but they’d come at the expense of the other.

Though that’s just over a one-minute drop in their season per-game averages, the symbolism is more telling.

The Pistons are becoming Josh Smith’s team.

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Smith struggled at small forward, but the Pistons won’t pull him – or Monroe, a pending free agent, or Drummond, a prospective All-Star – from the starting lineup. So, they’re left trying to get Smith as many minutes as possible at power forward in other ways. And because Cheeks doesn’t believe in using Monroe and Drummond together with a tradition 1-2-3 behind them – following the misguided lead of his predecessor, Lawrence Frank – that means fewer minutes for Monroe and Drummond, two of the NBA’s top young bigs.

With the absence of a third big to clog paint, Smith-Drummond and Smith-Monroe are probably better combinations than Monroe-Drummond right now. But Monroe-Drummond could be the Pistons’ future, considering they’re five and eight years younger than Smith. And in the present, the combination trumps most of what Detroit has done this season.

But, for the time being, Monroe and Drummond will just have to fit best they can once Smith is comfortably situated.

Blazers beat Lakers 97-81, tie Denver for final spot in West

Associated Press
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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Damian Lillard scored 22 points and the Portland Trail Blazers beat the Los Angeles Lakers 97-81 on Sunday night to pull even with Denver in the race for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Both the Blazers and Nuggets are 35-38 with nine games left in the regular season. They play each other Tuesday in Portland.

Denver lost at home to the New Orleans Pelicans earlier Sunday night.

Portland took control by outscoring the Lakers 37-24 in the third quarter and led by as many as 26 points. Los Angeles shot 39 percent from the field and was outrebounded 61-42.

Allen Crabbe added 18 points off the bench for the Blazers, and Noah Vonleh grabbed 14 rebounds.

D'Angelo Russell led the Lakers with 22 points, and reserve Tyler Ennis scored 14.

Portland led 40-32 at the break after an unsightly half in which the teams took turns struggling from the field. At halftime, both were shooting exactly 32.6 percent.

The Lakers won their previous game against the Timberwolves but have won consecutive games only once since mid-November.

TIP-INS

Trail Blazers: Shot 62.4 percent against Minnesota on Saturday, their best mark since hitting 64.1 percent on March 12, 2003. Coming into Sunday, they had shot 50.6 percent over their last five games.

Lakers: Rookie forward Brandon Ingram, who started the previous 19 games and averaged 12.1 points on 48.4 percent shooting, did not play because of right patellar tendinitis. Said coach Luke Walton: “He was out there warming up and it’s not right.” Corey Brewer got his first start for the Lakers.

 

Watch Russell Westbrook drop a triple-double in epic battle with James Harden (VIDEO)

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HOUSTON (AP) Lou Williams scored 31 points off the bench, James Harden finished with 22 points and 12 assists, and the Houston Rockets never trailed while cruising to a 137-125 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday.

Russell Westbrook had 39 points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists for his second straight triple-double and his 36th this season, but Harden led the Rockets to a 25-point lead through three quarters in the matchup between top MVP candidates.

Trevor Ariza and Eric Gordon added 24 points apiece for the Rockets, whose lead was trimmed to eight on a 3-pointer by Westbrook with about 90 seconds left. The Rockets scored four quick points after that to secure the victory.

Harden left late in the game after crashing into the court and appearing to injure his left wrist but said in a TV interview he expected to be OK.

Houston jumped out to a 9-0 lead and was up by at least 20 for most of the game. It was a stark change from the first three games between these teams this season, which were decided by a combined seven points.

Williams made 11 of 15 shots, going 7 of 8 on 3-pointers. He didn’t miss a shot until his layup was blocked by Jerami Grant early in the fourth quarter.

Houston won its fourth straight overall and has won nine of their past 12 games against the Thunder.

The Rockets shot 71 percent in the first half, and Harden made a layup before grabbing a rebound and hitting a 3-pointer at the buzzer to extend Houston’s lead to 113-88 entering the fourth quarter.

The Thunder chipped away with a 12-4 run midway through the fourth quarter to get within 126-114 with 4 minutes left. Williams hit a 3-pointer after that to slow down the Thunder the team’s late run.

The Rockets had a 16-point lead in the third quarter before they used a 13-4 run to make it 108-83 with about 90 seconds left in the quarter. Williams had two 3-pointers in that stretch and a highlight came when Houston stripped the ball from Westbrook and Harden dished to Ariza, who finished with another 3. The run wrapped up with an alley-oop dunk from Harden to Clint Capela, but Capela received a technical on the play for hanging on the rim.

Mike D’Antoni received a technical seconds later for arguing that call.

Houston had built a 79-59 lead by halftime thanks in part to nearly perfect 3-point shooting by Trevor Ariza and Williams. Ariza made four of five attempts and had 16 points at the break, and Williams was a perfect 6 for 6 overall, with four 3-pointers to pile up 18 points in the first two quarters.

TIP-INS

Thunder: Victor Oladipo finished with 15 points. … Steven Adams and Alex Abrines scored 11 points apiece.

Rockets: Houston’s 79 points were the most the team has scored in a half this season. … Sunday was the 12th time this season where the Rockets had 100 points before the fourth quarter. … Williams had at least 20 points off the bench for the 29th time this season.

ANDERSON’S HEALTH

Houston’s Ryan Anderson will miss about two weeks after spraining his right ankle on Friday night against the Pelicans. D’Antoni hopes Anderson will recover in time to play the last couple of regular-season games and be at full strength for the start of the playoffs.

UP NEXT

Thunder: Visit Dallas on Monday.

Rockets: Host Golden State on Tuesday.

Watch every one of Jimmy Butler’s career-high 14 assists in win over Bucks (VIDEO)

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Chicago Bulls star Jimmy Butler seems to be thriving without backcourt teammate Dwyane Wade. On Sunday in a win against the Milwaukee Bucks, Butler dished out a career-high 14 assists to go along with 20 points, six rebounds, and three steals.

Butler, 27, helped Chicago to a 109-94 win over the Bucks. He looked good doing it, dropping dimes off of both the pick-and-roll and while coming off screens.

The NBA put together a handy little video to be able to check out all of Butler’s assists.

Clippers blow 18-point lead, lose in final 2 seconds on putback to Kings (VIDEO)

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The Los Angeles Clippers had a rough go of things against the Sacramento Kings on Sunday. Up by 18 with more than five minutes to go, LA blew their lead and were left to watch as the Kings sealed the game late.

The final possession for Sacramento came on a missed corner 3-pointer by Clippers guard Jamal Crawford. The Kings got the outlet pass out on the rebound, but Ben McLemore took it to the rack and missed. That’s when Willie Cauley-Stein stepped in, cleaned up the board, and put the game-winning shot home with less than two seconds left.

Los Angeles lost in spectacular fashion, and became the only team this season to lose given their game situation.

Here’s a compilation the NBA put together of Sacramento’s epic comeback:

Meanwhile, Chris Paul called it the worst regular season loss of his career.

The Clippers peaked too soon. Like, the first 20 games of the season too soon.