Fighting Chance

Despite heavy run of high-powered offenses, Pistons’ defense surges

The Pistons face two more offensive powerhouses on a weekend road trip to Miami and New York.
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MIAMI – The Pistons are several steps removed from evoking memories of the 2003-04 NBA champions that held five straight teams under 70 points and finished the season allowing opponents to shoot just 41 percent. And the sample size is still too small to draw sweeping conclusions.

But the improvement that coincided with John Kuester’s lineup change nine games ago at least appears to be built in part on a better defensive foundation.

In going 12-25 through 37 games, the Pistons allowed 100.3 points per game and saw opponents shoot 47.9 percent. In nine games since, they’ve held opponents to 94.4 points and dropped the shooting percentage to 47.3.

The points per game drop is significant even if the shooting percentage change seems minimal. Add the context of the quality and the makeup of the opponents, though, and the numbers become more meaningful.

Six of the nine opponents over that span rank in the top half of NBA teams in points per game. A more graphic illustration of the quality of the opponents’ offensive firepower is their shooting percentages. Five of the opponents – Boston (No. 1), Phoenix (2), Denver (5), Toronto (7) and Orlando (8) – rank among the top eight in the NBA in field-goal accuracy. Dallas and Memphis rank among the top 12.

The Pistons hadn’t faced a concentration of offensive efficiency quite like that all season and likely won’t again in the final 36 games, yet they came out of it with a winning record and improved their most significant defensive metrics in the process. And don’t forget that they played the first six of those games without Ben Wallace, still considered the team’s defensive anchor by John Kuester.

Kuester think the defensive surge is largely because the team is communicating more efficiently – not just the five players on the court, but in the larger picture, with a more engaged bench and more talk in huddles and elsewhere. Another factor, almost certainly, is an offense that also has functioned more efficiently and is now giving the defense a chance to get set more frequently.

That could speak to the effect Tracy McGrady has had on their offense. Even though the Pistons have ranked among the league’s best at taking care of the basketball all season, their turnovers have declined from 13.8 per game before the lineup change to 11.2 since. Throw out the lineup’s first game against Memphis when they committed 17 turnovers – it was also the game that saw the Pistons’ worst field-goal defense performance of the nine-game stretch (.521) – and the average drops to 10.5.

“You see it,” McGrady said earlier this week of the more cohesive play. “I think we made a point of emphasis of trusting each other on the basketball court, being unselfish. You see we’re a very unselfish team … but, more importantly, I think we’re a much improved defensive team.”

The onslaught of offensive juggernauts doesn’t slow down just yet. The Pistons play two more powerhouses over the weekend, starting with Miami on Friday night. The Heat rank 10th in points and fourth in shooting percentage. The Knicks, Sunday’s opponent, are second in scoring and 15th in shooting percentage, the latter number skewed by New York’s high proportion of 3-point attempts.

They probably aren’t going to go into those games thinking the opposition will have to rally to get to 70 points, but at least they’ll go in feeling like their defense will give them a fighting chance to pull out the kind of win they scored Monday at Orlando.