ProBasketballTalk 2014-15 Preview: Detroit Pistons

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Last season: The Pistons’ two big offseason acquisitions, Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings, flopped. Detroit fired Maurice Cheeks mid-season, but he wasn’t the only problem, and the losing continued.

The Pistons finished 29-53 and missed the playoffs for the fifth straight season – extending their longest postseason drought since before the Bad Boys.

On the bright side, Andre Drummond established himself as the NBA’s top young big-man prospect behind Anthony Davis.

Signature highlight from last season: Drummond has quick hands runs the floor really well, and Jennings is foolish fun:

Key offseason moves:

Keys to the Pistons season:

Stan Van Gundy cleaning up this mess: If Stan Van Gundy simply stops playing Josh Smith, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond together – and he’s indicated that experiment is finished – the Pistons’ new coach will do wonders. That trio was simply abysmal last season.

But Van Gundy can and should do more. One of the NBA’s best coaches, he negotiated the position of president and gave himself more job security. He has the freedom to do as he pleases.

Get tough with Brandon Jennings. Teach Josh Smith to play smarter. Demand Greg Monroe plays defense.

The Pistons have talent, but their glaring flaws made a bigger mark last year. Van Gundy is charged with reversing that.

Making the most of Greg Monroe: Monroe will be an unrestricted free agent next summer, and he can veto any trades.

He’s also the Pistons’ second-most valuable player behind Drummond.

Van Gundy, as coach and president, must get the most from Monroe on the court and figure out Monroe’s long-term situation in Detroit. Would he stay next summer? How much would it cost? What trades would he accept?

The roster-management aspects with Monroe are much trickier, but it’s not as if making the most of him on the court will be easy. Monroe excels near the basket on a team that also features Drummond and Smith, and Monroe’s defense has been lackluster to date.

The better Monroe plays, the more options he’ll have – and the more the Pistons will, too.

Getting Drummond to the next level: Drummond moved from rookie reserve to starting sophomore and maintained his incredible per-minute production. That’s no easy task. Many players falter as they handle more minutes against tougher competition.

Now, it’s time for Drummond to take the next step.

He makes an argument as the NBA’s best rebounder, and his pick-and-roll finishing is excellent. He must improve his defensive awareness, though. Drummond has all the raw tools to contend for Defensive Player of the Year, and he’s already blocking shots a high rate. But too often, he gets lost and is not positioned to protect the rim. A few post moves would help on the other end, but the Pistons have a greater need for him to serve as their defensive anchor.

Encouragingly, Van Gundy has a strong track record, having helped turn Dwight Howard into a superstar. Drummond has that same potential. Can Van Gundy help get another young center to the next level – and how quickly can he do it?

Why you should watch: Drummond is a beast. He’ll be an All-Star soon, and in the meantime, he’ll make some incredible plays that don’t seem reasonable for a man his size.

Oh, and Van Gundy might attack Jennings or Smith at any moment.

Prediction: 41-41. The Pistons shouldn’t have been as bad as they looked last season. It became quickly evident that the team’s defining three-man lineup – Smith, Monroe and Drummond – didn’t work. But the Pistons stuck with it. Why? Stubbornness? Stupidity? Tanking?

No matter the reason, it’s in the past. Van Gundy will fix that fatal flaw, giving Detroit a chance. Many questions remain – how Van Gundy will use the big three, whether Jennings can competently lead a team, just how good Drummond will be – but there will be room to explore them.

The Pistons should contend for a playoff spot, but the East is better and deeper this season. I have them just outside the postseason and looking in, but they easily could fall on the other side of that line.

Watch Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic dunk all over Bol Bol

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Bol Bol had some impressive blocked shots during exhibition games at the NBA’s restart, but he hadn’t gotten one in his 16 limited minutes since the seeding games started. He wanted one.

So Bol tried to get in front of Jusuf Nurkic of Denver on Thursday and… that did not go well.

Bol did later get a blocked shot on Hassan Whiteside.

Nurkic, however, ended the night with 22 points, seven rebounds, and the Trail Blazers got a 125-115 win that has Portland comfortably as the ninth seed, just half-a-game back of eight-seed Memphis. Portland is setting itself up with a better-than-average chance make the playoffs

Kawhi Leonard’s 29 leads Clippers past Mavericks in potential first-round preview

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Kawhi Leonard scored 29 points to help the Los Angeles Clippers beat the Dallas Mavericks 126-111 on Thursday night in a possible playoff preview.

Paul George scored 24 points and Ivica Zubac added 21 points on 10-for-10 shooting and 15 rebounds for the Clippers, who strengthened their hold on the No. 2 spot in the Western Conference standings.

The Clippers entered the night a just half game ahead of Denver, but they shot 54% against the Mavericks to improve to 2-2 in the restart.

Kristaps Porzingis scored 30 points and Luka Doncic added 29 for Dallas, which fell to 1-3 in the restart.

Dallas likely will finish as the No. 7 seed, making a first-round matchup with the Clippers a strong possibility.

“That’s obviously going to be a tough matchup,” Porzingis said. “They’re one of the favorites to win it all. They have multiple guys that have been there already. But we’re looking forward to the challenge and getting experience in that.”

Doncic was coming off a monster game — 34 points, 20 rebounds and 12 assists against the Sacramento Kings on Tuesday. He made 10 of 21 shots against the Clippers, including 6 of 13 3-pointers.

“Luka’s just a handful,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “It takes a whole team to guard him. I thought our guys did a pretty good job overall. We lost him a couple times, which you can never do. So there’s a lot of room for improvement.”

The Clippers led Dallas by 12 in the third quarter before the Mavericks rallied and tied the game at 101 midway through the fourth. Los Angeles responded with a 9-0 run to regain control. The Clippers shot 62% in the fourth quarter to pull away.

“I just liked how we played overall,” Rivers said. “We played like a team tonight, on both ends.”

Though the Mavericks fell to 1-3 in the restart, Doncic remained confident.

“We’re a great team,” he said. “We’ve always got chances, no matter what. I think some people count us out, but we’re not out. We’ll give our max.”

Devin Booker says after latest Suns’ win ‘Kobe’s with me every day’

Devin Booker Kobe
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
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Devin Booker grew up a huge Kobe Bryant fan. When Booker made the league in 2016 he got to play against his idol and threw up 28 points on the night. Kobe was impressed. The two talked after the game and Kobe gave him an autographed pair of shoes with an inspirational message:

“Be Legendary.”

Booker took that to heart. He got the phrase as a tattoo. He’s been writing “Be Legendary” on his Nike’s before every game in the bubble. And after he scored 20 against the Pacers Thursday, helping the Suns remain undefeated for the restart, he said Kobe is still inspiring him every day.

“Kobe’s with me every day. You guys see what I put on my shoes with the ‘Be Legendary.’ It’s a reminder.”

Whatever he’s doing, it is working. Booker hit a Kobe-like turnaround game-winner to beat the Clippers. He’s averaging 28 points and 6.5 assists a game for the restart, and shooting 40% from three. Defenses are keying on him, but with a healthy Deandre Ayton and other players stepping up — Cameron Johnson has been a surprise standout in Orlando — the Suns look sharp and keep on winning.

Kobe would be proud.

Giannis Antetokounmpo drops 33 on Heat, Bucks secure No. 1 seed

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton scored 33 points each, and the Milwaukee Bucks overcame a huge early deficit to get a 130-116 win over the Miami Heat on Thursday to clinch the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

The Heat led by as many as 23 points in a first half where the team piled up 73 points despite playing without Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic. Miami cooled off after the break and the Bucks took the lead in the third quarter but were down by 6 to start the fourth.

Antetokounmpo, the favorite to win his second MVP award, sat out about five minutes of the fourth quarter after collecting his fifth foul with 11 minutes to go. Milwaukee trailed by 1 with about five minutes remaining before using a 20-0 run, with three dunks from Antetokounmpo, to make it 130-111 with less than a minute to go and cruise to the victory.

Antetokounmpo and Middleton played 30 and 34 minutes respectively after the stars both sat out the entire second half of their last game on Tuesday.

Duncan Robinson had 21 points for the Heat, who lost to Milwaukee for the first time this season after winning the first two meetings.

The Heat led by 6 with about 11 minutes left in the fourth quarter when Antetokounmpo picked up his fifth foul on a charge and headed to the bench. Andre Iguodala made a 3 for Miami before the Bucks scored the next 13 points, capped by a 3 from Bledsoe, to take a 107-103 lead with about seven minutes remaining.

Robinson made a 3-pointer to end a scoring drought of almost four minutes for Miami with about 6 ½ minutes to go and Antetokounmpo re-entered the game soon after that.

The Heat led by 12 with about 10 minutes left in third quarter before Milwaukee used a 16-3 run to take an 82-81 lead with five minutes left in the quarter. Antetokounmpo and Wesley Matthews each had five points each in that span to help close the gap.

The Bucks cut the lead to 3 with a dunk by Antetokounmpo late in the third. But the Heat wrapped up the quarter with a 5-2 spurt to take a 98-92 lead into the fourth.