Magic, Indeed

Pistons dump Orlando for season’s best road win

TEAM COLORS

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

– Austin Daye scored a career-high 20 points and knocked down all four of his attempts from behind the 3-point line – none of them bigger than his first of two fourth-quarter triples. It came after Orlando came out furiously to start the fourth and quickly whittled a 10-point deficit to four. Daye’s answering 3-pointer came from a full long stride behind the arc in front of Orlando’s bench with a defender flying at him. It wasn’t the last big shot the Pistons would have to hit to repel Orlando’s 31-point fourth-quarter barrage, but it seemed to be the one that gave the Pistons confidence that they could close out their best road win of the season.

BLUE COLLAR – Tracy McGrady returned to Orlando, where he ascended to the pinnacle of NBA stardom early in the last decade, billed as a pass-first facilitator. Then he laid 14 points on the Magic to keep the Pistons in the thick of it early despite Dwight Howard’s big start. McGrady finished with 20 points, seven boards and five assists. Tayshaun Prince was just as critical to the win, matching the 20 of McGrady and Daye and dishing out six assists. Prince also hit a huge jump shot with just under four minutes left, fading away from 20 feet with Hedo Turkoglu in his face to put the Pistons ahead by nine.

RED FLAG – Free throws almost undermined a terrific all-around performance for the Pistons. They made only 10 of 20 in the first half or would have had a much bigger lead than the 10 they took to the locker room. But they managed to turn it around in the second half, at least, especially in the fourth quarter when the Pistons made 11 of 12. Rodney Stuckey knocked down all seven of his free throws.

The path to redemption for their sluggish first two months is still a long and winding one, but the Pistons have taken several assertive steps over the past 11 days. None was bigger than the one they took Monday when they racked up their best road win of the season – and, by extension, quite likely their best win, period – in knocking off East titan Orlando 103-96.

That makes five wins in seven games for the Pistons and the two losses are notable. One, a four-point loss at Boston in a game the Pistons controlled for most of the night, was largely encouraging and probably the step they needed to be able to not only control another road game against a superior team but close it out, as well. The other, a stink bomb at New Jersey two nights later, is the type of performance the Pistons must dismiss from their repertoire if they hope to make the playoff run they now fully believe is within them.

About that: The Pistons, now 17-28, are among a group of five – Philadelphia, Charlotte, Milwaukee and Indiana the others – that very likely could be competing for the final two playoff berths. If the Pistons can survive this brutal week – up next: hosting Denver Wednesday, followed by a Friday-Sunday road trip to Miami and New York – they’ll set themselves up to gain ground in a forgiving February.

“Considering what our schedule is looking like in the next week … this was a big win for us,” Tracy McGrady said. “For us to come in here and beat a team on their home court that is pretty damn good, it should be a confidence booster for us going back home.”

“The players have decided they want to win,” John Kuester said in the afterglow. “You give the players all the credit. They have done a phenomenal job.”

With Charlie Villaneuva again unavailable with a sprained right ankle – X-rays were negative and his status is day to day – the Pistons needed somebody to fill his void and provide scoring punch and length off the bench.

Enter Austin Daye, whose emergence along with that of rookie Greg Monroe has made the Pistons deeper and more versatile. Daye scored a career-best 20, matching the total of both McGrady and Tayshaun Prince, with Rodney Stuckey and Ben Gordon scoring 16 each.

Especially impressive was the way the Pistons withstood the fourth-quarter fury from Orlando they knew to be coming. And Daye was central to that, knocking down two huge triples – he was 4 of 4 from the arc – including one early when the Magic had chopped six points off a 10-point deficit to start the quarter.

“We really executed on the defensive end and we did a good job of knocking down shots toward the end of the game,” Daye said. “I always have confidence in myself to shoot big shots and it felt good to hit them. Tonight, (teammates) found me when I was open and I was fortunate enough to knock ’em down.”

An 11-0 Pistons run late in the second quarter gave them a lead they never handed back to the Magic, pushing the third-quarter collapses that were the story of much of the first half of their season a little further in the rear-view mirror.

Even though Orlando hit the Pistons with a 31-point fourth quarter, the Pistons still held a potent offensive team to 96 points, 12 under its NBA-best average of 108 for January.

While much of the focus on the Pistons’ improved play has been on the new lineup and rotation and, especially, McGrady’s influence on their offense, McGrady says improved Pistons defense is the untold story of their recent rally.

“I think we made a point of emphasis of trusting each other on the basketball court, being unselfish,” he said. “You see a very unselfish team. We have three guys with 20 points tonight, but more important, I think we’re a much-improved defensive team.”

“If you execute, you have a chance and with us it’s all a matter of executing and being smart out there,” Daye said. “We’ve done a good job of that the last couple of games. I just think if we go out and do the right things every night, we have a chance to win every game.”

They came out of Boston believing they could win games like Monday’s at Orlando. But narrow losses don’t pave the path to redemption. Wins like this one do.