Must-Win Game: Won

Pistons ride Monroe’s big 2nd half to critical win over Nets


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

– Greg Monroe took another step forward, continuing a remarkable 2011 calendar year for him. He’s averaged 11.5 points and 9.2 rebounds in his last 15 games coming into Friday night and continued to progress. He was dynamic in the third quarter, when the Pistons stretched a four-point halftime lead to nine, with six points, seven boards and two assists. He continued his recent knack for making himself available for passes near the rim and continues to convert at a high rate. Even though he missed all five of his free throws and was kicking himself for that afterward – “You can’t go 0 for 5; it’s something I’ve been working on” – he still finished with a career-high 20 points plus 11 boards.

BLUE COLLAR – Austin Daye, continuing a recent trend, knocked down some big fourth-quarter shots: two triples that boosted seven-point leads to 10 both times and a jumper late that put New Jersey out of it for good. But it was more than his scoring that helped the Pistons get this win. In the fourth quarter, he grabbed two rebounds, blocked a shot, fed Monroe for a layup and stepped in front of Nets 7-footer Brook Lopez to draw a charge. Daye finished with 12 points and four boards.

RED FLAG – Anthony Morrow has endured an injury-plagued season with the Nets, but he’s been healthy for all three games against the Pistons – and hurt them in every one. Morrow’s huge triple down the stretch of the season opener enabled the Nets to overcome a seven-point deficit in the final 100 seconds of the game to win. He returned to the lineup two weeks ago from injury just in time to face the Pistons, coming off the bench in limited minutes but making them count. He scored all 10 of his points inside a two-minute stretch that spanned the third and fourth quarters as the Nets seized control to win again. It was Morrow who gave the Nets a chance to win Friday night, too, when he scored nine points in just three possessions – hitting consecutive triples after a DaJuan Summers foul put him at the line for three successful free throws – to cut a 10-point Pistons lead to just one in the first half. Morrow finished with 22 points on only 12 shots.

The Pistons’ season started off horribly wrong at New Jersey with a near-certain win turned into a loss in the final seconds. Another loss to the Nets on Friday night, a little more than three months later, might have effectively ended their season – horribly.

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.