The NBA Playoffs are just over three weeks away, and with plenty of moveable parts in the standings, a cross-conference matchup between two playoff-bound teams takes place on Saturday, March 23 at 10 PM when the Detroit Pistons visit the Trail Blazers in Portland on NBA TV.
While both teams are essentially postseason locks, their final standing is far from determined. The Pistons (37-34) sit at 6th in the Eastern Conference, and only one game ahead of the Brooklyn Nets in 7th. The Blazers (44-27) are the West’s 4th-best, half a game behind the 3rd-place Rockets and a mere 2.5 games ahead of the Thunder, Spurs, Jazz and Clippers.
When thinking of similarities between Portland and Detroit, some immediately come to mind: led by a duo — Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum in Portland, Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond in Detroit — both have had some ups and downs in the past couple seasons, and are looking to make runs this year having added talent via trade and buyout.
For Portland, they’ve been swept in the playoffs for the past two years, and whispers of breaking up The Dame and CJ Show have only gotten louder, the logic being if the backcourt can’t get it done, then the franchise ought to keep one and get as much new blood as they can in return.
With the Western Conference standings’ topsy-turvy nature, Portland can face any of the four teams below them in the first round. Portland needs all the momentum they can get going into the postseason after not having won a playoff game since 2016.
Franchise star Damian Lillard has been exceptional yet again this season, averaging 26.3 points, 6.7 assists and 4.5 rebounds. Lillard has stepped his play up time and time again, and should find himself on an All-NBA team for the fourth time in his career at the end of this season.
CJ McCollum has missed the last two games with a knee injury, but should be back in time for the playoffs. McCollum’s been up to 21.3 points per game this year, a number to expect given his scoring prowess. Can Portland’s backcourt have the solid playoff run they’ve been missing the past two years?
In the Motor City, Blake Griffin is thriving in his first full year with the Pistons. Griffin should also be an All-NBA selection this year, good for a career-high 24.6 points, 7.6 rebounds and 5.4 assists a night.
Griffin has transformed as a player, going from the Clippers’ above-the-rim highlight maker to a lethally well-rounded offensive force. Despite making strides with his jumpshot, Griffin’s ball-handling and passing are the aspects of his game that set him apart the most, and those same skills have been integral to coach Dwane Casey’s system.
Andre Drummond has also been effective this year, averaging a career-high 17.4 points per game to go along with 15.5 rebounds. Even though the two-time All-Star missed out on this year’s All-Star festivities, making a postseason run is likely more important for the former UCONN standout.
As mentioned, Portland and Detroit were active at the trade deadline to improve their postseason chances — the Blazers picked up Rodney Hood and Enes Kanter while the Pistons got their hands on Wayne Ellington and Thon Maker. Improving their depth chart going into the playoffs had to be a priority for both franchises, but only time will tell how effective the new additions are to each team.
The Pistons are 7-3 in their last 10 games while Portland has won 5 out of their last 6, the lone loss coming to the red-hot San Antonio Spurs. Consistency has been the Pistons’ question mark, recently losing to the East’s second-worst Cavaliers and getting hammered by the Nets and Heat.
With McCollum out, Rodney Hood and Seth Curry have stepped up in recent wins over the Pacers and Mavericks. Additionally, it’ll be interesting to see how well Jusuf Nurkic and Enes Kanter can operate against Griffin and/or Drummond down low. Lillard, however, is Portland’s safety net, putting the team on his back when necessary, and he’ll likely need to in McCollum’s absence.
For Detroit, Wayne Ellington was great in a win over Phoenix, putting up 23 points and Luke Kennard is coming into his own as a sophomore. Contributions from the Pistons’ bench are important, but the game will come down to how well Griffin and Drummond can impose their will on the Blazers.
McCollum’s absence plays a big role in this one, but the Blazers have been just fine without him. They’ll need him for the playoffs, but in a regular season matchup with the Pistons, I think they can function well enough to win at home. I’ll take the more consistent team with the better record on Saturday night.
Prediction: Portland Trail Blazers defeat Detroit Pistons