The Milwaukee Bucks (3-6) should beat the Detroit Pistons (2-8) when they host them on Thursday night. Why? The Milwaukee Bucks are a better basketball team. Injuries, schminjuries. There are no excuses or circumstances that can alter the calculus enough to make a loss to the Pistons anything other than a brutal letdown. If the Bucks want to be anything other than a lottery team in the 2011-12 season, they need to win games like this against teams like Detroit. At this point you might be saying to yourself: "Steve, are you sure you want to go this hard on an NBA game so early in the season against a division opponent?" Yes, and I'll double-down on it: the Milwaukee Bucks must beat the Detroit Pistons. Allow me to explain...
Update: According to Jim Paschke's twitter account, Jon Leuer will make his first career start tonight.
Lawrence Frank's squad limps into Milwaukee on a six-game losing streak in which each loss has come by a margin of 14 points or more. The Pistons aren't just losing, they are consistently getting blown out. On Monday they not only broke a 32-year old franchise mark by losing their fourth consecutive game by at least 16 points in a 92-68 loss to the Chicago Bulls, but also managed to post their fewest points ever against the Bulls in the entire 260-game head-to-head history between the two teams. Detroit currently carries the dual burden of the second-worst offensive efficiency in the NBA and the third-worst defensive efficiency. An average game for the Pistons so far this season is a 12-point loss. Everyone knows the Pistons are bad at basketball, including their fan base. The team is currently last in the league in official attendance and even trails the Sacramento Kings by more than 3,000 fans per game. It is so bad right now that SB Nation's Pistons' blog, Detroit Bad Boys, is actually pining for the return of the injured Charlie Villanueva after the most recent loss to the Dallas Mavericks:
The Pistons are a bad, bad team and can't deal with injuries to key players, including the much maligned Rodney Stuckey and Charlie Villanueva, neither of whom played Tuesday. As I said in my game preview, the offense would look a lot smoother if Stuckey was taking care of the ball and Villanueva was out on the perimeter unafraid to take an open shot.
Okay, so the Pistons are terrible, but are the Bucks any good? After an impressive 106-103 victory over the San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday night, the Bucks enter Thursday's contest as one of only five NBA teams with a perfect record at home. That list of remaining team puts Milwaukee in great company with the Chicago Bulls (4-0), Indiana Pacers (4-0), Philadelphia 76ers (4-0) and San Antonio Spurs (7-0). Don't expect Stephen Jackson to put up 34 points on 12-17 shooting every night, but if he can find a happy medium between his early season clunkers and his most recent performance, it would go a long way towards stabilizing the Bucks' offense. Brandon Jennings put together a nice offensive effort against the Spurs as well, scoring 15 points on 57.7% TS and adding a team-high 11 assists. In the first half, Young Buck initiated offensive sets largely without running pick-and-roll (instead using simple wing entries and then clearing out to the weak side) and worked primarily as a spot up option, so keep your eyes on how Skiles elects to use him against Detroit. Taking away his temptation to shoot off the dribble in the first half allowed Jennings to post 9 points on 4-5 shooting and 8 assists through the first 24 minutes of game action.
The biggest question outside of Jackson and Jennings for the Bucks is what will happen at power forward over the next few weeks. Rookie second-round pick Jon Leuer has been outplaying Ersan Ilyasova on a nightly basis, while rookie first-round pick Tobias Harris has flashed a strong low-post game in his NBA first action -- he's 7-8 on posts ups this season, according to Synergy. And not to be forgotten is former starter Luc Mbah a Moute, who's missed all but one game with knee tendinitis but could also return soon. Scott Skiles doesn't consider Ersan an ideal starter at PF, but will he turn to one of the rookies any time soon?
If Rodney Stuckey misses the game with a groin injury, Jennings will get to face off against Brandon Knight, the rookie point guard out of the University of Kentucky that is still trying to find his way in the NBA. After struggling to contain pick-and-roll masters Steve Nash and Tony Parker, Knight's 2.7 assists per game average and 51.2% TS signals the job will get a whole lot simpler for Jennings and the Bucks on Thursday at the Bradley Center. Make no mistake, the Milwaukee Bucks must beat the Detroit Pistons.