Shuffling the Deck

Kuester shakes up lineup, but Pistons sputter in 3rd quarter, lose to Memphis


The story of the game in Pistons red, white and blue

– The bad news is Ben Gordon, who came off the bench after starting the last 10 games, went scoreless in eight first-half minutes, missing his only two shots. The good news is that Gordon caught fire after halftime, scoring 25 points and giving the Pistons a fighting chance after they’d fallen 12 points behind. Gordon has had some of his best games as a Piston when Rip Hamilton hasn’t been available. Hamilton, who came out of the starting lineup in late December, was out of the rotation completely for this game with Tracy McGrady and Rodney Stuckey starting at guard and Gordon coming off the bench with Stuckey sliding over to play point guard when McGrady needed a rest. Gordon didn’t score until there was 1:30 left in the third quarter, when he hit back-to-back triples to help the Pistons get within nine to start the fourth.

BLUE COLLAR – Through his first 32 career games, Pistons rookie Greg Monroe had zero double-doubles. In his last four, he has four, averaging 13.5 points and 11.5 rebounds after he went for 14 and 11 against Memphis. Monroe drew the start for Ben Wallace, who was inactive after spraining his ankle on the opening tipoff of Monday’s loss at Chicago. He only lasted three minutes of the first quarter when he got hit with two quick fouls, but he hung around for 29 minutes before fouling out in the final minute. Monroe continued to score more efficiently than in his first few weeks, making 5 of 7 from the field. He also made two nice defensive plays as the Pistons attempted to come back, blocking an O.J. Mayo layup to fuel a Pistons fast break and creating another transition opportunity when he stripped Zach Randolph.

RED FLAG – Despite changing the starting lineup dramatically, the Pistons continued to scuffle in the third quarter. They came into the game dead last in the NBA in third-quarter scoring differential at minus 3.8 per game and that got worse against the Grizzlies. They took a three-point lead into halftime, got hit with a 12-0 run midway through the third quarter and actually trailed by 12 at one point before getting it back to nine entering the fourth quarter. The Pistons were outscored 30-18 in the quarter.

An unfamiliar lineup showed early promise but did nothing to break the Pistons from a disturbingly familiar pattern: Their third quarters continue to cripple them. John Kuester removed Rip Hamilton from the rotation completely, supplanted Ben Gordon in the starting lineup with Tracy McGrady and paired rookie Greg Monroe with Chris Wilcox up front since Ben Wallace was out with a sprained ankle.

But an early 14-point lead was down to three at halftime. And that wasn’t nearly enough of a cushion when the third-quarter malaise – even with a radically different lineup – struck again. Memphis went on a 12-0 run midway through the quarter to take the lead for good and held on against a late Gordon barrage – all 25 of his points came in the final 13:30 of the game – for a 107-99 win that puts Pistons playoff hopes on life support at 12-26.

“The third period ended up hurting us again,” John Kuester said after the Pistons – last in the NBA in third-quarter scoring margin at minus-3.8 coming into the game – were outscored 30-18 to fall nine points behind entering the fourth. “We talked about it. We talked about being physical. It seemed like they were much more aggressive and getting the calls in that third period.

“It just seems like we’re settling for shots. Some of the looks we’re getting are not great – they’re good looks, but they’re not going in. Our energy in that first quarter … maybe we should make the halftime a little bit longer, go for 20 minutes instead of just 15. There were things I saw that were positive and that’s what we’re searching for right now.”

Hamilton’s fall from the starting lineup to sixth man to out of the rotation was less about his subpar play than it was about finding a workable rotation and give the other players along the crowded perimeter a chance to get the minutes necessary to establish a rhythm.

The rotation was down to a more manageable nine with three starters – Tayshaun Prince (38), McGrady (36) and Stuckey (39) – playing significantly more minutes than usual. Only two Pistons entered the game averaging 30 or more minutes a game, led by Prince at a modest 32.6.

Kuester brushed off any suggestion Hamilton’s inactivity had anything to do with the cacophony of trade rumors involving him to New Jersey as part of the mega-deal involving Carmelo Anthony, the Denver Nuggets and Nets in addition to the Pistons.

“Don’t even read anything into that,” he said. “When we put Rodney at the two, somebody has to be put of that position. Right now we’re searching to find a group that can get minutes and get the job done and that’s what we’re trying to do. Everyone has gotten a chance this season.

“(Hamilton) has meant so much to this organization. … We’re monitoring a lot of things that are going on with our team.”

Hamilton, for his part, expressed surprise and disappointment that he didn’t play, but stopped short, despite being baited two or three times, of saying he longer wanted to be here.

“My whole career, I never even thought about it,” he said. “I was always happy here. There wasn’t a thing I ever got caught up in. My thing was I just wanted to play basketball, so I never really thought about it.”

Gordon’s 25 led the Pistons, 12 of them coming from the 3-point arc. McGrady had 16, six boards and four assists; Stuckey 15, seven boards and six assists. Monroe registered his fourth straight double-double with 14 points and 11 rebounds. Zach Randolph (34 points, 17 rebounds) and Rudy Gay killed the Pistons with a combined 60 points on just 30 field-goal attempts.