Some so-called experts believed the aging Detroit Pistons would surrender their Central Division supremacy to younger, up-and-coming teams this season.
The Pistons are proving them wrong.
Detroit looks to make it three wins in four games on its current West Coast road trip in a matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday night.
While both the Cleveland Cavaliers, who beat the Pistons in last season’s Eastern Conference finals, and the Chicago Bulls have struggled to sub-.500 records, Detroit (6-2) is playing like it’s headed for a fourth straight Central Division title and sixth in seven years.
The big four of Richard Hamilton, Chauncey Billups, Rasheed Wallace and Tayshaun Prince—in its fourth season playing together—has made the Pistons the East’s only team with at least four players averaging 15.0 points.
Detroit, the only Central team with a winning record, has won two of its first three games on its five-game trip out west. After a 102-94 loss in Portland on Tuesday, the Pistons looked fatigued at Golden State on Wednesday night, trailing by 13 at halftime before rallying in the second half for a 111-104 victory.
“With playing last night and tonight, there was a lot of energy expended, but that’s all right,” said Wallace, who had 22 points and nine rebounds. “Just executing, that’s all it was. Wasn’t a matter of taking over or anything.”
What made the comeback more improbable was that Detroit was playing without two injured starters, Billups and forward Antonio McDyess. Billups twisted his right knee and McDyess aggravated his sprained left shoulder in the loss to the Trail Blazers.
“That was a great win, boy,” Billups said. “That was crazy.”
The MRIs for both players came back negative Thursday, meaning neither one should be out for very long, though it’s unclear if Billups or McDyess will play in this game.
Detroit has won five of six regular-season meetings since that series—the victories were by an average of 16.2 points—and posted double-digit wins in both meetings last season.
The Lakers (4-3) have been facing speculation since the offseason that Bryant would be traded, but they haven’t let the rumors interfere with their play. They’ve only faced one opponent which currently has a losing record, yet they’ve come away with impressive victories over Phoenix, Utah and Houston.
Los Angeles built an 18-point lead in the first half and held on to beat the Rockets 93-90 on Wednesday behind Bryant’s 30 points. He was held to 18 the previous night in a 107-92 loss at San Antonio.
“It’s very good for us to bounce back and come out and play our best,” said Bryant, the league’s leading scorer with a 28.6 points per game. “We wanted to kick it up (in the second quarter) and I was able to get my game going. My fade-away is my secret weapon. I’m entirely optimistic all the time.”
Bryant was held to an average of 18.5 points in two meetings with Detroit last season.
Andrew Bynum was not much of a factor in either of those games but is off to a decent start this season, averaging 9.7 points and 10.0 rebounds in only 23.0 minutes per game. The 20-year-old center has three double-doubles.
“Andrew’s a guy that does gobble up those rebounds,” said Lakers coach Phil Jackson. “If there’s a ball available, he’s going to get it, and I like that.”