Every so often, a team will come along to provide a lift for a city with far larger economic and social problems, representing a welcome distraction and opportunity to forge important common ground for an otherwise disjointed citizenry.
The Detroit Pistons are not that team.
No, they're just a bad basketball club. One with some decent individual players, but without a legitimate top shelf talent, or a good shot at getting one without a few lucky bounces from a ping pong ball. In short, the Pistons aren't a team the Lakers have any business losing to, at home, on the road, in a box or with a fox. Particularly after handling business in an appropriate manner Tuesday night in Milwaukee. Save Pau Gasol, on the floor for 44 minutes Tuesday and likely to continue piling up minutes until Andrew Bynum returns, no Lakers were forced to extend themselves physically. Kobe Bryant finished with about 33, Derek Fisher 25:25, and Ron Artest under 18, including none in the fourth quarter. As ESPNLA's Dave McMenamin reports, the short night had nothing to do with Phil Jackson trying to keep Artest fresh, but fresh he ought to be tonight, nonetheless.
Here's what to watch...
1. Sum vs. Parts- While the Pistons lack the great player, they have a bunch of pretty good ones, at least on the offensive end. (The other side is another matter entirely.) They don't necessarily complement each other all that well- Detroit could use a couple pure ball-movers, as they're among the worst teams in the league when it comes to assist rate- but individually the Pistons have guys who can score. If you round up Austin Daye's 9.5 points to 10, Detroit has six players averaging double figures. Rodney Stuckey leads the team in points per game, while Ben Gordon is tops in scoring per minute (no surprise). Charlie Villanueva, Tayshaun Prince, and Richard Hamilton also put up numbers.
The Lakers have to be aware defensively, and not relax on any individual players on the floor. Because the Pistons don't pass well and lack waves of great ball handlers, there will be opportunities for the Lakers to force turnovers with traps and aggressive play, but help and rotations will need to be strong. That nobody in a Detroit uniform commands a consistent double team makes it easier.
2. Artest- I mentioned his thin minutes Tuesday night, on the heels of a 22 minute game Sunday against the Suns. The latter isn't all that surprising- the Suns represent a matchup struggle for him- but the former was, at least in one respect. Artest wasn't struggling. He hit three of five shots, grabbed five rebounds, added a pair each of assists and steals, and was a plus-seven, so the Lakers weren't being hurt by his presence. Jackson said after the game Artest had asked out of the game early because he wasn't feeling right. But because other guys were playing well, there was no reason to put him back in, either. Shannon Brown was on fire, bumping Kobe to the three for much of the fourth quarter. Matt Barnes was very effective, also serving to limit Artest's PT.
Big picture, Artest is a guy who prefers playing big minutes, and this year is averaging under 30 a game not because he's playing poorly (he certainly has struggled at times and still doesn't always look comfy in the offense, but has hardly been a train wreck) but rather because the Lakers simply have other viable options, when last season they didn't. It'll be interesting to see how Jackson handles Wednesday's game. Detroit has a host of wing players, some longer/bigger than others, but not a lot of pure size.
Ben Wallace, long past his prime as a defender and rebounder, is still their starting center. (Not a good sign for Deeeeeetroit basketball.)
The Lakers could easily run with Artest on the floor, but probably could just as easily field a lineup down the stretch similar to the one on the floor Tuesday in Milwaukee, leaving Artest back on the bench. I have a feeling Jackson will find a way to get Artest more minutes tonight (in part to head off discussions like this one), but I doubt this'll be the last time we talk about this. Artest, and Fisher for that matter, is likely going to have to accept he won't be playing quite as many critical minutes this year.
3. The Fold- The Lakers typically get the opposing team's best effort, even when said team happens to be fairly craptastic, as the Pistons are. Therefore, expect the Pistons to come out playing hard. But the crowd at the Palace won't be particularly hostile- Detroit hasn't drawn all that well, so the building will be filled with plenty of purple and gold- and can likely be taken out of the game pretty fast with a strong start for L.A. More importantly, the Pistons themselves might not withstand a strong Lakers push.
As Marc Spears of Yahoo! Sports reports, tension is running high in Detroit. Prince is the latest player to butt heads with head coach John Kuester, and criticism has flowed towards the coach from Gordon and Daye as well. Kuester recently benched Stuckey, too. One Pistons player compared the current environment in Detroit to "Ringling Brothers."
Wounded teams will periodically rally... but just as often when faced with a challenge too big for their talent, can often be made to fold, too. With a strong early push tonight, the Lakers just might get Detroit to roll up the tents and move on to their next performance.