5 things to watch: Detroit Pistons vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

Mar 29, 2016; Auburn Hills, MI, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder center Enes Kanter (11) and guard Russell Westbrook (0) box out Detroit Pistons center Aron Baynes (12) during the fourth quarter at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 29, 2016; Auburn Hills, MI, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder center Enes Kanter (11) and guard Russell Westbrook (0) box out Detroit Pistons center Aron Baynes (12) during the fourth quarter at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports /

After a four-game road trip, the 5-5 Detroit Pistons return home to face the 6-4 Oklahoma City Thunder. Both rosters have changed significantly since their last meeting.

After a four-game road trip, the 5-5 Detroit Pistons return home tonight to face the 6-4 Oklahoma City Thunder. Both teams have some new faces in the lineup, however, the most noticeable change is the absence of Kevin Durant. After the summer escapade that took Durant to the Golden State Warriors, the Thunder have appeared to have regrouped and they are off to a decent start.

The Pistons, on the other hand, have had an up-and-down go of it this season without starting point guard and offensive leader Reggie Jackson. With his scheduled return in the next few weeks, it is crucial for the Pistons to avoid getting overly anxious in expectation of getting him back. In fact, these early games could have huge effects on the playoff picture come April, and they will need a win tonight to stay above .500.

In order to make that happen, let’s take a look at the 5 things to watch in tonight’s game against the Thunder:

#1 – Russell Westbrook

This is an obvious one, but it couldn’t go without being mentioned. Westbrook is already having some of the best numerical outputs of his career. Although this was to be expected with the departure of Kevin Durant, his numbers are nothing short of staggering. Through the first 10 games, Westbrook is averaging 31.9 points, 10.1 assists, and 9.2 rebounds per game.

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On top of that, his dominance has shown no signs of slowing down as he added his third triple-double of the season last night when he racked up 41 points, 14 assists and 12 rebounds in an overtime loss against the Orlando Magic.

While none of this is good news for Detroit, the Pistons and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope have historically held Westbrook to some of his worst numbers statistically. In 14 career contests against the Pistons, Detroit has held him to 17.3 points and 6.3 assists per game while shooting 36.3 percent from the field and 23.5 percent from three. Those numbers are nearly half of what he is averaging this year and significantly lower than his career marks of 21.6 points and 7.6 assists per game.

Tonight, however, will be anything but their usual matchup. Reggie Jackson is still unavailable as he is recovering from knee issues, and the weight of his matchup will mainly fall on Ish Smith and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. While Caldwell-Pope has done well to slow him down in the past, Smith will have to find a way to be a factor and make Westbrook work on both sides of the ball or it could be a long night for the Pistons. Either way, with his historically high usage rate hitting 41.3 percent, it is clear that slowing down Westbrook will be key to a Piston victory tonight.

#2 – Thunder are on day two of a back-to-back

For the Thunder, if there has ever been one, this game could be considered a throwaway game. The Thunder are on the second night of a back to back, on the road, suffering from an excruciating last-second overtime buzzer beater against the Orlando Magic…hit by non-other than former Thunder star, Serge Ibaka. If Oklahoma City was ever going to mail one in, tonight may be that night.

That being said, the Pistons can facilitate this by getting after them early, being extra physical, and using their fresher legs to run at every opportunity. If the Pistons come out with energy and build a solid first half lead, it is doubtful the Thunder will have the physical and mental reserves to overcome much adversity.

On the other hand, if the Pistons are not ready to play. If they come out slow or lethargic, or if they turn over the ball, Russell Westbrook looks to take out his aggression on an unexacting Piston team.

#3 – Pistons are 4-0 at home

Although the pistons are sitting at 5-5 for the season, they are a perfect 4-0 at home. Without Reggie Jackson leading the offense, getting layups for himself and open looks for others, the lonely cold road has been a difficult place to play. At home, however, with their crowd, family, and friends behind them, the Pistons have shown no problems staying focused. Look for the fans to add some energy early and Coach Van Gundy to be as vocal as ever.

#4 – Andre Drummond’s Free Throws

Andre Drummond is shooting 53.1 percent from the free throw line! Although it is extremely early in the season, if this keeps up it could be one of the greatest single season Free Throw Improvements in history. He is up 17.6 percent from last years single-season NBA record low of 35.5 percent. Even though this is incredible, the effects of this change are even more interesting.

Although it has been dreadful to watch Drummond shooting free throws over the last few years, the most painful part has been the effects his poor free throw shooting has had on his psyche and watching how it causes the rest of his game to implode.

Last year, when Drummond struggled at the charity stripe, his confidence would evaporate – his shoulders would slump, his head would bow, and his energy would seemingly be sucked from his body. Worst of all, in an effort to ease the pain, he would try at all costs to avoid going to the free throw line. In avoidance of contact, he would start taking quick ill-advised shots, fading away in the post, and even trade contested dunks for low percentage up-and-under layups.

It seems that his new free throw focus and his half court strolls between shots are paying off, however, the greatest dividends can be seen in his mindset. When he is making his free throws, his demeanor shifts to that of a raging bull – his chest pops out, he stands tall and he takes the contact to his opponent. As a result, he is significantly more physical on both sides of the ball and at times, he has been dominant.

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Through the first 10 games this season, this effect has been extremely evident. In the 4 games he has averaged below than 50 percent from the free throw line, he is averaging 11.25 points, 9.25 rebounds, 1.25 steals, and .75 blocks per game; however, in the 6 contests he averaged over 50 percent from the free throw line, he has averaged a monstrous 17.3 points, 17.6 rebounds, 1.5 steals, and 1.5 blocks per game. 

In tonight’s contest against the Thunder, it is imperative that Drummond goes hard at his opponent, and when his is fouled, he must take his time, follows his routine, and knocks down his free throws. If he does, the numbers suggest he will have a big game.

#5 – The Tobias HarrisDomantas Sabonis matchup

Thus far this season, Tobias Harris has shown to be the Pistons most consistent scorer. He has shown an ability to get to the basket with ease and knock down threes with regularity. Tonight’s game should be a favorable matchup for Harris that could provide him the opportunity for a big game, and if the Pistons hope to win, someone will have to step up and compensate for the inevitable points Westbrook is going to score.

Through ten games, Harris is averaging 16.5 points and 4.7 rebounds per game while simultaneously averaging his most effective shooting numbers to date, with an eFG percentage of .523.

Sabonis, on the other hand, is a talented young big man playing his first season in the NBA. With the absence of Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka, Sabonis has been thrust into the starting lineup. So far, he is averaging 7.5 points and 3.5 rebounds a game while shooting 45.5 percent from the field.

Tonight, Sabonis will be entering his 11th professional basketball game as he faces the Pistons. Although he appears to have the pedigree and a solid future ahead of him, he is still trying to figure things out. This should be an opportunity for Harris to have a big game.

If Harris can go to work on him early he may be able to rattle his confidence. Harris’ consistent shooting should bring Sabonis out for coverage, while his quick first step and ability to finish in traffic should allow him to ample opportunities to drive and score. On the other end of the court, Harris should be able to hold his ground with Sabonis as he is not an overly aggressive rebounder or post player.

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Furthermore, Sabonis appears to lack the foot speed or shooting to get Harris out of position. All in all, if the Pistons are to win tonight, much of it will come down to whether or not Harris can take advantage of this matchup.