A Radical 180

After pushing NBA’s best hard, Pistons can’t afford letdown vs. lowly Cavs

TEAM COLORS

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

– The Spurs hurt the Pistons badly with their 3-point shooting, going 10 of 18 with makes from five different players. Second-year power forward DeJuan Blair put up big numbers, going for 18 points and 12 boards. And Manu Ginobili showed why he’s in a class with Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and a select few others as a classic closer with two killer 3-pointers late after scoring seven points in the game’s first 42 minutes. But Tony Parker controlled the game for the Spurs with 19 points on 7 of 8 shooting – his only miss, on his last shot, came with the Spurs milking the shot clock – and seven assists. Hard to believe that guy isn’t an All-Star.

BLUE COLLAR – Tim Duncan is arguably the greatest player of his generation, so this is not at attempt to compare Greg Monroe to Duncan. But they do share a number of traits, including aptitude, demeanor and versatility. And in Monroe’s first time sharing the floor with a cinch first-ballot Hall of Famer, he didn’t look at all out of place. Monroe recorded another double-double, becoming almost routine for the Georgetown rookie, giving the Pistons 14 points, 13 boards and two assists in a team-high 36 minutes.

RED FLAG – On a night the Pistons got 21 points from Will Bynum off the bench and Rodney Stuckey returned to bolster the backcourt defensively, one more hot shooter might have been enough to put them over the top against the NBA’s best team of the first half. But Tayshaun Prince, Ben Gordon and Tracy McGrady all struggled to find a rhythm, combining to make only 12 of their 38 shots. The rest of the team combined to shoot 53 percent, but Prince, Gordon and McGrady shot just 32 percent.

No one could have predicted the gulf that would separate Pistons opponents on consecutive nights in the dead of winter-swept February when the NBA schedule came out last summer. But the Pistons headed for Cleveland late Tuesday night to play the 8-44 Cavs, owners of an NBA-record 25 consecutive losses, on the heels of hosting the NBA’s runaway leader, San Antonio, which left The Palace with a gaudy 43-8 record after a 100-89 win that was closer than the score suggested.

And the Pistons absolutely, definitively, flat-out, simply can’t afford a loss to the Cavaliers – not for their fragile self-confidence and certainly not for their flickering playoff hopes.

“It’s tough going down there,” Austin Daye said. “It’s a loud arena, but I think we should be able to handle it fine. We have a veteran squad, guys who have been in that type of situation where a team hasn’t got a lot of wins. They’re a desperate opponent. Hopefully, we can do a good job down there.”

Daye was one of the bench brigade to which John Kuester entrusted most of Tuesday’s fourth quarter against the star-laden Spurs. Pistons starters struggled, especially in the third quarter, when they combined to shoot 4 of 16. Ben Gordon (4 of 13), Tayshaun Prince (5 of 15) and Tracy McGrady (3 of 10) combined to shoot 31.6 percent. The rest of the team shot 53.3 percent with Will Bynum scoring 21 points off the bench.

“The energy of the second group was the reason we got back into the game,” John Kuester said after riding Daye, Bynum and Rodney Stuckey – back after missing the past five games with a right shoulder bruise – all of the fourth quarter. The only starters to play were Prince (the final 4:20) and rookie Greg Monroe (5:42), who racked up another double-double with 14 points and 13 boards. “Those guys gave us a boost.”

Whether it was tough luck or accumulated rust, Stuckey missed a number of shots at the rim that could have squeezed the Spurs. Most damaging was a missed layup with two minutes left that would have sliced San Antonio’s lead to four.

“You know that is (rust), but I want Rodney taking those shots,” Kuester said. “He has an open look and the ball goes in and out. Greg made the great pass to him going down the middle – I don’t know how he saw that – but it was great vision on Greg’s part. He had the layup. He just missed it, but his effort was good.”

The Pistons missed four layups in the last four minutes, two by Stuckey, and the Spurs made them pay with killer execution that embodies the value of the veterans that have made the Spurs such a model franchise since Tim Duncan arrived 14 seasons ago.

Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginboli all had their moments that called to their mind their All-Star resumes, but the role players so critical to the Spurs’ four titles in the Duncan era showed up, as well. DeJuan Blair put up 18 points and 12 boards and the 3-point shooting of Matt Bonner, Gary Neal and Richard Jefferson always seemed to come at critical times.

“It’s tough,” Daye said. “They’re a veteran team. They know where everyone’s at on the floor at all times. When you’ve got a guy like Tony Parker who can break down a defense and get in the lane, it’s tough.”

The loss leaves the Pistons at 19-32, and for all the signs of improvement they’ve made over the past month, they haven’t gained much traction in their pursuit of one of the East’s two apparent remaining open playoff berths. They’re four games in the loss column behind Charlotte, currently eighth, with Milwaukee and Indiana sitting between the Pistons and Bobcats.

So losing at Cleveland isn’t an option. Not with a killer array of solid playoff contenders lined up for three games in four days at The Palace – Miami on Friday, Portland on Sunday and Atlanta on Monday before a visit from Indiana sends the Pistons into the All-Star break next Wednesday.

“They’re playing good basketball,” Kuester said of the Cavs, who have had chances to win several games in recent days after a long streak of blowout losses. “We’ll have our hands full. They’ll be waiting for us. We recognize we’re going to have to play an awfully good basketball game.”