Must-Win Game: Won
Pistons ride Monroe’s big 2nd half to critical win over Nets
So they didn’t lose – and two players whose career arcs have intersected a few times since that opener were a big part of the reason why.
Austin Daye was a starter on opening night, but a few weeks later he wasn’t merely out of the starting lineup but the rotation as well. Greg Monroe didn’t get off the bench in the opener, nor the home opener two nights later, but soon began to get spot minutes, built from there into a regular turn into the rotation and a month ago emerged as a starter, averaging 11.5 points and 9.2 rebounds over the past 15 games.
He bettered those numbers in Friday’s big win over the Nets, going for a career-best 20 points – that despite an 0-of-5 showing at the free-throw line – to go with 11 boards, two assists and two blocked shots. He was going up against two New Jersey lottery picks, franchise center Brook Lopez and power forward Derrick Favors, taken four spots ahead of him in last June’s draft. Monroe, who played 42 minutes and all of the last two quarters, guarded Favors much of the first half and Lopez for most of the second. And he bettered their combined numbers of 20 points and nine boards.
“It feels good,” he said. “It feels even better that we got the win tonight. I’m just out there working. My stats are showing me trying to help my team win the game.”
“The kid looks good,” Nets coach Avery Johnson said. “He is improving. He is long and he really was impressive tonight.”
Monroe dominated the third quarter, even if the numbers didn’t scream dominance. He had six points, seven boards and two assists as the Pistons stretched a four-point halftime lead to nine. Monroe had 12 points, nine boards, two assists and two blocks in Friday’s second half.
He made a nice post move with back to the basket, scoring on Favors, in the first quarter, then in the third quarter he moved assertively across the lane and scored with a left-handed hook shot. His other points were scored at the rim, where he continued to display a recent uncanny knack for finding holes in the defense and making himself available for passes.
“He is playing like the old zone, where (upon) penetration he gets his back to the baseline and figures out a way to get behind the defender,” John Kuester said. “He’s done a great job and you’ve got to give credit to the guys making the passes, too.”
Never fear: Monroe, who has impressed the veterans with his ability to balance a deference to their experience with a no-backing-down mentality, gave them just that credit.
“It’s not me,” he said. “My teammates find me. That’s basically it. I’m just trying to get myself in position to get easy baskets and they’re making great passes. They’re finding me. They’re making great plays. I’m rolling, just finding open spots, trying to seal off the defender and they’re finding me.”
While Monroe, with great help from veterans Tayshaun Prince (22 points, seven boards, four assists) and Tracy McGrady (16 ponts, eight boards, four assists), delivered the Pistons to the fourth quarter with a nine-point lead, it was Daye’s aplomb in clutch shooting situations late that sustained momentum on several occasions and allowed the Pistons to avoid any chance of a last-minute collapse this time.
One early and one midway through the fourth quarter, Daye 3-point baskets stretched seven-point leads to 10, and a graceful turnaround later still all but clinched the win with under two minutes to go.
Daye’s progress in other areas of the game, though less noticeable than his form-perfect jumpers, allowed him to earn Kuester’s confidence and now keep him on the floor in those fourth-quarter situations. Daye, who finished with 12 points and four boards, had two rebounds, a blocked shot and a gorgeous assist for a Monroe layup in the fourth quarter alone, when he also stepped in front of Lopez to draw a charge.
“It’s been a slow process,” he said. “I’m just trying to learn, especially on the defensive end. It’s kind of tough for me, coming from (Gonzaga) where you go up and down, up and down. But I’m adjusting.
“I know he made those shots, and that was important,” Kuester said. “But his defense – he’s starting to use his length to tremendous advantage. I was so impressed with his getting big rebounds. I feel very confident when the ball is in his hands, whether it’s a shot or he’s making a play for somebody else.”
So two players who at various times this season have been outside the rotation combined to provide the Pistons a win they couldn’t have afforded to leave The Palace without. There’s a pretty good chance that the intersections of their career arcs from this point forward will come with both on upward swings.