In their first matchup since the NBA Finals, the Spurs and Pistons are atop their respective conferences going into their Christmas Day game at The Palace of Auburn Hills.
Detroit followed its 2003-04 championship season with a return to the Finals last season, taking on a San Antonio squad looking for its third title in seven years.
The Pistons came back from a 2-0 series deficit to force a Game 7, but the Spurs went on to win the finale 81-74 at the SBC Center.
“A part of our success so far is tied to losing the way we did in Game 7 last season,” Pistons reserve Antonio McDyess said. “It made us hungrier.”
In a back-and-forth battle between two of the best defensive teams in the league, the Pistons were the only squad to reach 100 points in any game—102 in Game 3—and each averaged less than 87 points for the series.
This season, San Antonio and Detroit remain among the league’s top defensive teams, ranking fifth and sixth, respectively, in points allowed per game.
The Pistons, though, have been much better offensively under Flip Saunders, who took over after Larry Brown left to coach the New York Knicks. Saunders’ squad is averaging 99.8 points, good for sixth in the league.
“It’s going to be a good opportunity to play against the other best team in the league,” Detroit’s Chauncey Billups said. “It’s always good and fun to have games like this.”
Both teams have an NBA-best 21 wins, though San Antonio has twice as many losses, in part because they dropped back-to-back road games earlier this week against the New Orleans Hornets and Milwaukee Bucks.
The Spurs have bounced back to beat New York and the Toronto Raptors, improving to 10-2 against the Eastern Conference.
The Pistons are 10-1 against the West, and enter with a six-game winning streak overall. Their only loss in 10 home games came in double-overtime on Nov. 25 to the Washington Wizards.
“They’re playing very well, probably the best basketball in the league right now,” San Antonio’s Tim Duncan said. “We’re going to their house where they are even tougher and we haven’t been that great on the road. So we’re up for one heck of a challenge, and it will be a great time for it.”
Duncan scored nine of his 27 points in the fourth quarter in Friday’s 95-90 win over Toronto, but Spurs coach Gregg Popovich did not come away feeling good about his team.
“We’re not playing well,” Popovich said. “It’s a miracle we have the best record in the West.”
His team hasn’t been helped by the absence of All-Star Manu Ginobili, who has sat out the last seven games with a sprained right foot and will not be able to return for this game.
The status of Rasheed Wallace is less certain.
The Pistons’ volatile forward did not participate in the team’s morning practice Friday after learning his cousin was killed in a shootout with Philadelphia police.
However, Wallace started against the Golden State Warriors later that night, scoring 19 points and playing a game-high 43 minutes in a 97-85 victory.
“He was somewhat emotional,” Saunders said. “It’s a tough situation, and that’s one of the reasons I played him a lot. I thought it was better for him to be occupied than to just sit and think.”
It’s unknown whether Wallace will be available for this game.
STANDINGS (through Dec. 24): Spurs - 1st place, Southwest Division. Pistons - 1st place, Central Division.
PROBABLE STARTERS: Spurs - F Bruce Bowen, F Duncan, C Rasho Nesterovic, G Tony Parker, G Michael Finley. Pistons - F Tayshaun Prince, F Rasheed Wallace or McDyess, C Ben Wallace, G Richard Hamilton, G Billups.
TEAM LEADERS: Spurs - Duncan, 20.8 ppg and 11.8 rpg; Parker, 6.3 apg. Pistons - Hamilton, 21.9 ppg; B. Wallace, 11.9 rpg; Billups, 8.7 apg.
2004-05 SEASON SERIES: 1-1.
LAST MEETING: June 23; Spurs, 81-74. At San Antonio, Duncan took home the NBA Finals MVP award after scoring 17 of his 25 points in the second half of Game 7 as he lifted the Spurs to another championship.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Spurs - 9-5 on the road; Pistons - 9-1 at home.