Opportunity Knocks

Off of big win over Boston, Pistons can further momentum out West

The Pistons head out West after notching an impressive win over the Celtics on Wednesday night at The Palace.
Allen Einstein/NBAE/Getty Images
When the NBA schedule was released in early August, the trip west that bridged 2010 and 2011 looked immediately unforgiving. It looks no less challenging today, despite Phoenix’s inconsistencies and the recent struggles of the Lakers. But coming off of the Pistons’ best wire-to-wire performance of the season – Wednesday’s 104-92 win over Boston – the trip also looks like an opportunity.

The Pistons headed west to Phoenix on Thursday afternoon only two games behind Philadelphia – which knocked off the Suns on the road as the Pistons were clubbing the Celtics - for the No. 8 playoff seed and feeling considerably better about themselves for their recent signs of promise.

“Once you come off a great win like we did last night against Boston, you kind of have some momentum, some confidence,” said Tracy McGrady, at the center of the win with his 21-point, eight-assist stint as the starting point guard with Rodney Stuckey down with the flu. “Especially when you’ve got to go on the road for three tough games. Hopefully, that carries over and we start off right in Phoenix.”

After playing the Suns on New Year’s eve, the Pistons will be off until Monday night at Utah – where they haven’t won since Nov. 6, 2002, covering seven games, as part of their overall 10-game losing streak against the Jazz – and then finish off the trip the next night in Los Angeles.

Ben Gordon sees the trip as a chance to build on the momentum the Boston win provided.

“That’s how we have to approach this,” he said. “We’ve just got to go out and compete the way we did last night. It’s always going to be on the defensive end for us. We have so many guys who can get you 30, 35 points on any given night that I think when we focus on defense as a whole, the offense will take care of itself.”

The relationship between offense and defense is hard to define in basketball, but it’s easier to prove the notion that strong defense helps fuel offense by providing running opportunities and numbers advantages. Yet the Pistons felt that their improved defense in the win over Boston was at least partly because their offense was running efficiently because so many players were getting involved.

“No matter who we play, we’ve got a chance to win if we do the things we’ve been doing, especially last night as far as sharing the basketball,” Will Bynum said. “It carries over to the other end of the court where guys definitely are more in tune to what is going on and are ready to help each other out a little more because they’re getting touches.

“The whole pace of the game changes and everybody is into it mentally. It’s a different game. Basketball is more of a feel-good game. When players are feeling good about themselves, it shows up on both ends – the passion shows up a lot more. Guys are out there having fun and that’s what you’re seeing.”

One game is a pretty small sample size from which to draw meaningful conclusions, but it wasn’t lost on many that it was McGrady with the ball in his hands for 30 minutes against the Celtics.

Now that McGrady has proven he can handle a heavier workload, will John Kuester be able to get him 30 minutes a night?

“That’s a tough question,” Kuester said. “A lot of times we can, but it will be at the expense of other people. We’re here to win. That’s the bottom line. And we’ve got to do whatever it takes to get Ws.”

McGrady certainly sounds eager to accept broader responsibilities, whether that’s a heavier dose of minutes or more time running the offense, whether that comes at point guard or another position.

“Other than bringing the ball up 94 feet, not really,” he said when I asked him if there was any real difference for him between playing point guard or having the offense run through him as the small forward. When Stuckey returns, it’s conceivable Kuester will gradually shift more of the burden of running the offense over to McGrady even with Stuckey remaining the starter at point guard.

“That can be done,” McGrady said. “It’s just all about what coach wants to do as far as who he wants to run the offense through, Rodney or me.

“I’ve pretty much had the ball in my hands my whole career – it’s nothing new to me. I’m a playmaker. I thrive on making my teammates better and I have a really good feel for the game. I feel that when the ball is in my hands, I make great decisions for my team.”

McGrady could draw the start at Phoenix, as well, since Stuckey didn’t make Thursday morning’s practice, still afflicted with the flu. Closing out 2010 with a win over the Suns would be a great beginning to 2011 for a team that left The Palace after its win over Boston believing the best was yet to come.