True Blue Pistons - March 2011
The Pistons admit their envy of Indiana’s position – the Pacers are in the driver’s seat for the East’s last playoff spot with two weeks to go – and anger with themselves for squandering opportunities to mount a challenge. But as motivating factors go that deep into the NBA season, the lure of the playoffs trumps anger.
Or it did Wednesday, at least, when their anger didn’t manifest itself in a damn-the- torpedoes effort until it was too late, the Pacers building a 25-point lead in the third quarter before the Pistons made the final a little more palatable by creeping within 10, 111-101.
When last the Pistons played, Saturday night against the Pacers at The Palace, they held Indiana to 88 points and won by 12. The three days off seemed to induce lethargy, though, and this time the Pacers scored 90 points before three quarters were out and topped 100 with nearly nine minutes left in the game.
“In the NBA, if you don’t come ready to play, teams find out,” John Kuester said. “It doesn’t matter what their record is right now, if you don’t come to play you’re going to get beat.”
Posted Tuesday, March 29, 2011
For as long as the past two months, the Pistons have been playing a string of de facto must-win games. They’ve lost their share or more, and none of them technically eliminated them from playoff contention. In the most technical sense, neither will a loss at Indiana on Wednesday night.
But a loss to the Pacers would, at last, make them pay for all of those blown opportunities and reduce their margin for error to zero. A loss at Indiana would leave the Pistons at 26-48 with eight games left, putting their best possible finish at 34-48. An Indiana win would give the Pacers 34 wins, also with eight to play.
As unlikely as it would seem for the Pistons to close 8-0 while Indiana finishes 0-8 – and Milwaukee and Charlotte, currently wedged between the Pacers and Pistons, doing their part in stumbling down the stretch – the door to the postseason would remain slightly ajar.
Posted Monday, March 28, 2011
The Final Four is set: Tayshaun Prince, Ben Gordon, Rip Hamilton and Charlie Villanueva.
Those four Pistons will be watching intently from their Boston hotel rooms Saturday night when Kentucky and Connecticut hook up in one national semifinal after the Cinderella twins, Butler and Virginia Commonwealth, fight over one available slipper to Monday’s final dance.
One of the UConn contengent might even propose a friendly wager, Prince suspects.
“I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure with Rip and Charlie, they’ll figure something out,” Prince grinned after Monday’s practice. “I don’t know if BG will figure something out, but I know Rip and Charlie will. Those guys, ever since the tournament started, they’ve been talking to all the guys and telling them they better not play Connecticut. I’m pretty sure they’ll come up with something.”
Posted Saturday, March 26, 2011
When a team wins 26 games in a season, as the Pistons now have with Saturday’s 100-88 downing of Indiana, you can pick a different adjective to describe every one of them. Saturday’s was bittersweet.
Against the team they’ve known for weeks they would have to beat out for the East’s final playoff seed, the Pistons built an 18-point third-quarter lead and held off an Indiana rally that cut it to six. They were led in scoring by the suddenly resurgent Rip Hamilton, who dropped 23, and got a huge boost off the bench from Charlie Villanueva.
It leaves them technically still alive in the playoff race – with nine games remaining, they’re now five games behind the Pacers in the loss column – but mostly feeling wistful about what might have been if Hamilton had been able to play this way out of the gate and given them the consistent scorer they’ve lacked. Without that automatic 18 to 20 points, the Pistons have groped – both to find the right lineup combination and to win games.
Posted Friday, March 25, 2011
It’s been more than six weeks since the Pistons won on the road. Detroit’s last win away from home was on Feb. 9 in Cleveland against the Cavs, 103-94, after the Pistons’ bench put up 61 points. Their return to Cleveland should have been a good way for the Pistons to put an end to the losing skid, but the Cavs provided an intense vigor throughout the entire game and held the Pistons to just 42 precent shooting from the field.
Baron Davis returned to action and brought a much-needed boost to the Cavs’ offense. The Pistons trailed by just three points late in the fourth, but Davis hit a 3-pointer with 9.9 seconds left on the clock to put the Cavs up by six, putting the game out of reach for Detroit. Davis finished with 16 points, four rebounds and five assists. Baron got his groove back by bringing the right amount of energy and helped the Cavs seal the deal in the end.
The Pistons’ biggest lead over the Cavs was just two points and John Kuester said that the Cavs simply played harder tonight.
Posted Thursday, March 24, 2011
Greg Monroe made the Rookie-Soph Challenge during All-Star weekend and he’s become a heavy favorite to land a berth on the NBA’s All-Rookie first team. But if racking up double-doubles is a measuring stick of stardom, he’s not far removed from even loftier ambitions.
Monroe’s 14 points and 12 boards against Miami on Wednesday night was the rookie’s 17th double-double since Jan. 1, or roughly the same time he joined the starting lineup. Only 10 NBA players have more since and the list includes Dwight Howard, Zach Randolph, Blake Griffin, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol.
Monroe’s 17 double-doubles puts him ahead of players like Chris Paul, LeBron James and Chris Bosh.
Posted Wednesday, March 23, 2011
When a team has 70 games in the books, its personality is set as surely as a man’s would be at age 70. The Pistons’ personality began forming in the season’s first game, when they had a seven-point lead with 100 seconds on the clock and lost at New Jersey. On a night they played 42 mostly terrific minutes against an NBA title contender, six thoroughly flawed ones gutted their opportunity to score perhaps the season’s best win.
Miami opened the fourth quarter on a 15-0 run to turn an eight-point deficit into a seven-point lead. The Heat had taken the lead when John Kuester called a timeout with 9:23 left, by which point the Pistons had already committed three defensive gaffes – two three-second calls on one possession and a foul committed while James Jones was lauching a 26-foot 3-point attempt.
Kuester got Tayshaun Prince back into the game at that point for Charlie Villaneuva to play with four other bench players – Rodney Stuckey, Jason Maxiell, Austin Daye and Ben Gordon. By the time he ushered Tracy McGrady, Greg Monroe and Rip Hamilton back before the midway point of the quarter, Miami led 88-81. The Pistons never cut it to less than four, though they had three shots to cut into that four-point deficit in the final two minutes and missed each time.
Posted Tuesday, March 22, 2011
Chris Wilcox has averaged 14.5 points and 5.8 rebounds over the last four games and made 79 percent of his 33 shots. There are a lot of reasons the Pistons are struggling to reach the 30-win plateau for the second straight season, but one of the biggest is the fact that Wilcox hasn’t had a four-game stretch of productivity at that level since signing as a free agent in the summer of 2009.
If you had sat in on some of the informal scrimmages staged in the days leading up to John Kuester’s first training camp, you’d have guessed that 14.5 and 5.8 would be Wilcox’s numbers for a season, not as a four-game outlier of his time as a Piston – which could be down to its final 12 games with Wilcox a pending free agent.
“All our bigs give us energy, but he gives us a different kind of energy,” said another of the Pistons who took part in those informal scrimmages that summer, Will Bynum. “When he dunks, he’s getting the crowd into it, he gets his teammates into it. He’s out there blocking shots, he’s talking on defense, he’s helping, he’s extremely active. Chris is a great player. He just needs a chance.”
Posted Sunday, March 20, 2011
In the span of one Sunday matinee squeezed between the NCAA’s weekend orgy of basketball, the Pistons showed both why they believed they had playoff potential and why they didn’t realize it often enough to make it a reality.
Against an Atlanta team humbled by a Friday thrashing at Miami’s hands and looking to build momentum for its own playoff drive after losing five of its last six at home, the Pistons battled uphill all day – putting on impressive bursts to prevent the Hawks from pulling away and again revealing the depth they felt would be a strength, but ultimately losing because of too many stretches where execution betrayed them in a 104-96 loss that drops them to 25-45 with a dozen games remaining.
Take three stretches that spanned the midway point of the third quarter to the midway point of the third. Two of them were bad, the first allowing Atlanta to build a 14-point lead and the third allowing the Hawks to pull away again after a Charlie Villanueva 3-pointer to open the fourth quarter pulled them within two.
“It’s definitely a tough way to lose,” rookie Greg Monroe said after another strong outing. “We did a good job of (withstanding) all their runs, we just couldn’t overcome them.”
Posted Friday, March 18, 2011
On a night of giving, the Pistons drew the line at giving in to a season-long bugaboo: the third-quarter doldrums.
Leading the Knicks by two after a thoroughly entertaining first half light on lockdown defense, they went nine straight possessions without scoring anything more than a lone Ben Gordon free throw – awarded for an illegal defense call on New York – as the Knicks went on a 17-0 run to turn an eight-point deficit into a nine-point lead.
But John Kuester turned to Will Bynum to start the fourth quarter – after Bynum hadn’t moved from his seat on the bench over the first three – and Bynum, Charlie Villanueva, Chris Wilcox and Rodney Stuckey carried the Pistons to a dominant fourth-quarter rally for a 99-95 win on a night the Pistons raised $351,110 for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Michigan through their annual Pistons Care Telethon.
Bynum lit the fuse with five assists and spirited defense that harassed the Knicks into 28.6 percent shooting in the fourth quarter. Three of those assists led to Charlie Villanueva 3-point baskets, the last of which capped a 13-5 rally to start the starter and forge an 83-all tie with 8:04 remaining. Villanueva scored 11 of his 14 in the fourth quarter.
Posted Thursday, March 17, 2011
Before Ben Gordon signed a contract with the Pistons that made him financially secure for life, before he was a college All-American leading Connecticut to the 2004 NCAA title and before he joined a long list of basketball players who got their starts in the hoops hotbed of Mount Vernon, N.Y., he was a kid who needed a chance.
If Mount Vernon hadn’t been home to a Boys & Girls Club, who knows if that chance would have ever presented itself?
But there it was, just a few blocks from home, and it wasn’t only basketball that drew him.
Posted Wednesday, March 16, 2011
Maybe the low point of a Pistons season that’s been saddled with its share of candidates came Dec. 11 when Toronto erased a 24-point deficit late in the third quarter to win by five. A similar storyline was playing out at The Palace on Wednesday – a 20-point lead had melted to five early in the fourth quarter – but the Pistons dug in and played with a fire that has too often eluded them.
In a game notable for the return of Ben Wallace to the starting lineup and a season-high first-quarter scoring total, the signature moments of the win came in the early moments of the fourth quarter, when John Kuester – who started the team’s four oldest players – left a group of young players to sink or swim on their own.
The Raptors had cut a 20-point first-half deficit to five with nine minutes remaining, but Kuester let those veteran starters – Wallace, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince and Tracy McGrady – cool their heels for nearly another five minutes. By the time he waved Prince, Hamilton and McGrady back, the lead had been restored to 10.
Posted Tuesday, March 15, 2011
If you polled the Pistons’ locker room, the ideal Final Four would have Kentucky coming out of the East, UConn – apologies to Cincinnati – winning the West, Georgetown emerging from the Southwest and Gonzaga springing the upset in the East.
Eight Pistons are represented in this year’s NCAA tournament among five college teams. Four of the five – all but Gonzaga – go into their first-round games with the more favorable seed, which means more than half the Pistons’ roster will be planning their week around tournament tipoff times.
“It’s a wonderful time to sit down and watch TV all day,” said Greg Monroe, who only a year ago was participating in the NCAA tournament. “It’s a fun time for everyone.”
Posted Saturday, March 12, 2011
To theorists who endorse the notion that lineup upheaval most affects a team’s chemistry at the defensive end, the 2010-11 Detroit Pistons are your go-to body of evidence.
John Kuester reconfigured his starting lineup again Saturday night – that makes 17 iterations through 67 games – by going back to Rip Hamilton and Rodney Stuckey as the starting backcourt and using Tayshaun Prince and Tracy McGrady at forward with Greg Monroe in the middle.
And until the Pistons – playing their third road game against a Western Conference heavyweight in four nights – ran out of gas midway through the third quarter, the results offensively were positive. With 6:46 left in the third quarter, the Pistons had scored 72 points and were shooting better than 50 percent. They were also tied after trailing through once Denver took a 9-0 lead and hit its first eight shots.
Posted Friday, March 11, 2011
Oklahoma City didn’t do anything quite so dramatic as San Antonio did two nights earlier against the Pistons, when the Spurs essentially won the game by sinking their first 14 shots. But the Thunder were nearly as deadly over 48 minutes, which begs the question: Are the Pistons playing defense that poorly or running into teams enjoying phenomenal shooting nights?
“It’s probably both,” said Rodney Stuckey, one of many Pistons who played well offensively on a night the opposition shot better than 50 percent all night before settling in right at the break-even mark. “The defense has been lacking all year.”
Down 11 at the end of three quarters but still within hailing distance of the Thunder, the Pistons quickly fell behind by 18 when James Harden dropped in his fourth 3-pointer – in five tries. The Thunder were 8 of 13 from the arc at that time and finished at exactly 50 percent both behind and in front of the 3-point arcj on the heels of San Antonio’s 64.3 percent shooting to start a three-game trip against some of the West’s best.
Posted Thursday, March 10, 2011
Ben Gordon made the short trek from his native New York for college at UConn, made into a national power during the Rip Hamilton era when the Huskies won a national title under Jim Calhoun. In his junior season, he carried the Huskies to the Big East tournament title with a tour de force performance that bumped Allen Iverson from the record book.
So when Kemba Walker, another product of the New York playground incubator and another UConn junior, nailed a dramatic game-winner to upset Pitt in the Big East quarterfinals, Gordon – more than 1,000 miles away in his Oklahoma City hotel room – flashed back seven years to UConn’s 2004 run that culminated not only with a Big East tournament title but the NCAA championship captured in the city where Gordon played only Wednesday night, San Antonio.
“I sent him a text, but I don’t even remember what I said,” Gordon said after Pistons practice later Thursday afternoon. “I’ve got to go and look at my phone. I was so hyped. I sent it right after the game and I think I just said I was proud of him.”
Posted Wednesday, March 9, 2011
John Kuester said Monday he had a feeling Tracy McGrady would get another chance to play soon. Turns out that was less clairvoyance than choice. The Pistons coach made the lineup switch Wednesday, reinstalling McGrady as his starting point guard and moving Rodney Stuckey – who had averaged 21 points and eight assists over the past four games since replacing McGrady – back to the bench.
Stuckey, who before the recent switch had been the starting shooting guard alongside McGrady, came off the bench and played both spots. Will Bynum was the odd man out on a night the Pistons fell behind by 19 in the face of San Antonio’s scorching start, but played hard and actually pulled within five in the final minutes before losing 111-104.
“Right now, we’re searching,” Kuester said afterward. “We’re always searching, it seems that way. We’re always looking to see who is going to give us the most amount in certain spots and certain situations. I thought Tracy was outstanding tonight – his leadership and his ability to control the game was outstanding.”
It hasn’t mattered much to the Spurs who lines up against them this season. And the late switcheroo sure didn’t disrupt their mojo in a season that’s seen them sprint from the gates with a 52-12 record. But they were humbled at home on national TV in their last game, losing big to the Lakers, so the Pistons expected going in that they were going to absorb the best shot of a team accustomed to throwing haymakers.
Posted Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Tracy McGrady started to smile before my question was fully formed. McGrady and Tim Duncan took very different paths to get to the NBA – McGrady straight from high school, Duncan after four seasons at Wake Forest even though the NBA was pining for him by midway through his freshman year.
That was 14 years ago. McGrady and Duncan’s paths have crossed so often since, if you charted them it would resemble a double helix. They very nearly became teammates in the summer of 2000 when Orlando signed McGrady away from the Toronto Raptors and Grant Hill from the Pistons – the darkest day in the 54-year history of the Pistons in Detroit.
Tim Duncan almost joined them, but he couldn’t look Gregg Popovich, David Robinson and the people of San Antonio in the eyes and tell them he was bolting.
Which ought to hearten Pistons fans, because McGrady sees an awful lot of Greg Monroe in Tim Duncan.
Posted Monday, March 7, 2011
Pistons fans convinced they’d seen the last of Rip Hamilton should tread carefully with the assumption that Tracy McGrady is destined to ride out the season’s final 18 games in obscurity.
“It will not surprise me if he gets another opportunity pretty soon,” John Kuester said after Monday’s practice to a round of questions about why McGrady hasn’t played since scoring 16 points and dishing 12 assists in a Feb. 23 loss at Indiana.
McGrady was one of seven players who either didn’t attend or arrived late for the morning shootaround at Philadelphia two days later. McGrady had informed team officials prior to shootaround that he was not feeling well, citing a headache, but when he didn’t play that night against the 76ers – the Pistons played only the six players who showed up on time for shootaround – he told reporters afterward that he was available.
Posted Sunday, March 6, 2011
John Wall justified the hype that carried him to No. 1 in last summer’s NBA draft in his Palace debut, scoring 24 points and putting his world-class speed on full display. Even in a crowded field of elite point guards, he did nothing to make anyone think he won’t be dotting All-Star rosters for years to come at some point in the not-too-distant future.
But if the point guard matchup between John Wall and Rodney Stuckey had gone to a three-judge panel Sunday night, Stuckey would win on points. Statistically, it was a near-draw. Stuckey finished with 19 points, nine assists, seven rebounds, a steal and just two turnovers in 41 minutes; Wall had 24 points, seven assists and five rebounds but no steals and four turnovers.
But Stuckey’s team won, the ultimate stat for point guards and quarterbacks.
“I’m up to any challenge,” Stuckey said, downplaying the suggestion he was amped up to play against Washington’s prized rookie. “I’m just coming out and playing basketball, just trying to do anything to help my team win.”
In his last four games – which coincides with Stuckey’s reinsertion as starting point guard after a long stint as shooting guard at Tracy McGrady’s side – Stuckey is averaging 20.8 points and eight assists against 2.5 turnovers and the Pistons have averaged 107 points, nearly 12 better than their season average.
Posted Friday, March 4, 2011
Will Bynum was the second-oldest among the nine Pistons available to John Kuester last week when they scored a season-high 120 points and rallied from seven back in the fourth quarter to beat Utah. When somebody asked if Pistons fans had just gotten a peek at the future, Bynum said, “Better yet, maybe the future is now.”
Except it won’t be until Jonas Jerebko is back, and while his return inches closer every day, it’s still not certain it will happen in the less than six weeks that remains of this season. With the Pistons fading from playoff contention, they’ll do nothing to rush the process.
But it doesn’t stop John Kuester from wondering what could have been.
Posted Thursday, March 3, 2011
It’s probably silly to think Greg Monroe’s progress in a rookie season that’s seen him take great leaps forward has hit a plateau, but let’s assume his production over the season’s final 19 games stays where it has in the two months since he’s moved into the starting lineup.
If that’s the case, then his current averages of 8.3 points and 6.9 rebounds a game will improve to 9.2 and 7.5 for the full season. That’s a long, long way from where he stood after the first two games of his NBA career, when he didn’t get off the bench and some of the more hysterical among media and fans were ready to proclaim him a bust.
And it’s significantly removed from where he was as 2010 came to a close, by which time he’d moved solidly into the rotation but had only twice in 32 games broken double digits in scoring and twice in rebounding.
Posted Wednesday, March 2, 2011
The Pistons’ maddening inconsistencies – not from night to night, but from quarter to quarter – cost them another game, this time to a team with an even longer litany of woes. After putting up 61 points in a dazzling first half offensively – and still somehow trailing by two points – the Pistons sputtered to a 44-point second half against the NBA’s worst defensive team.
The 105 points they scored still should have been enough to win, as John Kuester pointed out first in his postgame comments. But that misses the point with these Pistons. Their inconsistencies go across the board. The only constant is that they too often look back at something – a cold-shooting quarter, or a spell of bad defense, or breakdowns that enable two sloppy minutes to wipe out 10 precise ones – and shift their focus to remedying a new evil, only to have a different malady undermine them the next time out.
After Wednesday’s loss to Minnesota – which came to The Palace with a 14-47 record – the focus was defensive mind-set.
Posted Tuesday, March 1, 2011
John Kuester said Monday that the Pistons were starting fresh – minutes would be earned by production, regardless of stature, in games after time was earned in practice. In the wake of a disjointed performance against a woefully understaffed Milwaukee team, auditions presumably will be ongoing.
The Bucks went into the game without their top four frontcourt players – Andrew Bogut, Drew Gooden, Ersan Ilyasova and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. That left them with undersized 2009 second-rounder Jon Brockman; raw rookie Larry Sanders, in the D-League just last week; and NBA journeyman Earl Barron, just signed to a 10-day contract.
So with a chance to build off the momentum generated by their win over Utah in which Kuester used all nine players available and lauded the team’s cohesion and energy, the Pistons didn’t shoot it straight all night – a night marked by the return of a rusty Rip Hamilton, who shot it especially crooked in a 92-90 loss.
Both teams are fighting long odds in what remains of the East’s playoff race, but the Bucks came out of it in better shape than the Pistons at 23-36 to Detroit’s 22-40. Playoffs or not, it was a disappointing showing by the Pistons if for no other reason than whatever it appeared they had captured in scoring 120 points against Utah had little carryover effect the next time out.