Tonight, the Boston Celtics will face off against the Detroit Pistons (3-8) for the first time this season, giving us a fresh look at Cade Cunningham and a battle against the physicality that Detroit brings to the table every night.
For Detroit, not much has changed. They’re still a rebuilding team and still rely on a physical bully-ball style of play that sees them grinding free-flowing offenses into half-court battles against some imposing defenders. If you remember, the Pistons were a tough out for the Celtics last season, giving them problems on both ends of the floor.
It will be interesting to see how the Celtics' up-tempo, free-flowing offense deals with such a physically dominant team, especially when looking to attack the rim. Furthermore, you tend to question just how easily Boston will be able to defend their paint and protect their glass when you have Isaiah ‘Beef Stew’ Stewart bulldozing his way to the rim and fighting for position on box-outs.
Still, it’s abundantly clear that the Celtics boast the deeper, more talented team, but this is the NBA, so you can never take anything for granted. With that said, here are my three tickets to triumph for tonight’s game.
Put your foot on the gas
No team in the NBA is giving up more points per 100 possessions than the Detroit Pistons, allowing 118.3. So, logic dictates that the faster you play, the more possessions you can squeeze in, and thus, the more points you’re going to score against one of the worst defensive units in the league right now. If the Celtics can execute at a high level, maintain their composure when fighting through contact, and run their offensive sets, then they should have no problem finding gaps to attack and switches to punish.
After all, this Pistons team might boast size and strength, but they’re still young, so forcing mistakes should be high on the Celtics' priority list — I mean, we all remember when teams looked to outwit Boston a few years ago, it’s part and parcel of the development process.
Another reason to commit to pushing the pace is that the Pistons rank 20th in transition defense, which should give the Celtics some belief that they can get cooking if they can get out and run early and often.
Win the paint battle
Watching the paint battle unfold is going to be an interesting aspect of Wednesday’s game. Detroit ranks 7th in the league for the frequency in which they attack the rim but ranks dead last for their conversion rate on their shot attempts. Whereas the Celtics sit 3rd in the NBA for limiting the team’s rim attempts and 6th in points allowed around the cup.
Therefore, Detroit will have a difficult time finding their spots in the paint, and an even tougher time getting those shots to fall, especially given their struggles in converting their attempts to begin the season.
However, the Celtics will need to ensure they’re not sucked into a trap where they’re overcommitting on drives and post-entries, but rather, sticking to their current style of defense and relying on their switchiness and ability to guard angles in order to limit the Piston’s interior flow.
Dominating from deep
The perimeter is another battleground that should hold some interest. Coming into this game, the Celtics are shooting the most 3’s out of any team in the NBA, and yes, that includes the Golden State Warriors. Boston also ranks 8th in their three-point conversion, sinking 38.8% of their treys. However, Detroit sits 8th in the league for limiting opponents' success from deep, containing them to just 34.7% over their first 11 games.
Herein lies the question — can the Celtics manipulate the Pistons' defense to the point where their 3’s are open or wide-open? Will Boston stick with their rim-pressure-based drive and kick game while looking to make the extra pass? Or will Joe Mazzulla look to continue utilizing some delayed cutting actions to create some additional momentum around the cup?
Regardless of how Mazzulla and the Celtics decide to approach this game, on both sides of the floor, it’s clear there are advantages to be made and exploited, and for a team like this with championship aspirations, these are the contests where you’re expected to go out and show the gulf in quality.
Detroit was a tough opponent for the Celtics under Ime Udoka. Amalgamating their physical attributes, shiftiness, and ‘what is there to lose’ attitude to become a real thorn in Boston’s side. However, this year’s Celtics are a different equation altogether, one that blends complex algebra with quantum physics — well not really, but that’s how I imagine it would feel to try and contain this offense and figure out where to get your buckets against their defense.
It will be fun to see both sides try to figure out where advantages can be found and to watch how the battles in the paint and on the perimeter unfold. Yet, the most important thing to me is getting to see Cunningham’s developments when sharing the floor with elite talents like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Detroit might be a couple of years away from being a force in the Eastern Conference, but the building blocks are all in place, so it’s on the Celtics to be the big bad wolf and blow those bricks down en route to their 8th win of the season.