Costly Loss

Aldridge’s 36 leads Portland as Pistons suffer damaging defeat


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

– LaMarcus Aldridge has drawn comparisons to a young Rasheed Wallace since entering the league, and while he might never approach Wallace’s ability on the defensive end, he’s becoming a more willing and potent scorer. Four times in his last 12 games entering Sunday, Aldridge had scored 37 points or better, all topping his previous career high. He almost made it five against the Pistons, finishing with a highly efficient 36 points, making 12 of 17 from the field and 12 of 13 from the line. Aldridge scored nine points in the fourth quarter, including the biggest basket of the night, an 18-footer with 36 seconds left that gave Portland a three-point lead.

BLUE COLLAR – Wesley Matthews was a gem found by Utah after going undrafted out of Marquette, where he was a four-year starter on teams that had much success. But the Jazz, already well into luxury-tax territory, couldn’t match the front-loaded contract Portland offered him as a restricted free agent last summer. Matthews is justifying Portland’s bold decision to give him a $34 million mid-level exception contract. His tough perimeter defense was his ticket to the NBA, but he’s also shown he can do more than just lock up wing scorers. Matthews proved a potent No. 2 scorer on Sunday, backing Aldridge’s 36 with 26 of his own, going 7 of 11 from the field, 4 of 5 from the 3-point arc, and knocking down all eight of his free throws. He added seven boards and five assists, to boot.

RED FLAG – NBA coaches have used zone defense primarily as a change-of-pace tactic since they it was made legal 10 seasons ago, so when Portland coach Nate McMillan called timeout midway through the first quarter with his team trailing 17-9 after a 13-2 Pistons run and deployed a zone, nobody thought the Pistons would see nothing but zone for the rest of the half. But that’s what happened, and the Pistons’ scoring rate slowed considerably. They scored just four more points in the first quarter. Portland stayed with the zone throughout the second quarter and the Pistons eventually cracked it, coinciding with the re-entry of Greg Monroe and Tayshaun Prince. Monroe found the hole in the middle for five points on two layups and a free throw and also hit Prince for a layup. But the zone turned the game around early and enabled Portland to turn momentum its way.

The Pistons entered Sunday six games in the loss column out of the final playoff spot in the East. They’ll enter Monday’s game with Atlanta seven games back. As the economists say, their season is trending in the wrong direction.

The season passed the two-thirds pole with Sunday’s crushing 105-100 loss to Portland – a game the Pistons trailed most of the way but led by two when Will Bynum hit two free throws with 1:48 left – that sends the Pistons a season-worst 15 games under .500 at 20-35. That means that the season’s final third is going to have to produced nearly as many wins as the first two in order for the playoffs to become a realistic possibility. The two teams occupying the final two spots, Philadelphia (7-3 in its last 10) and Indiana (7-1 since firing coach Jim O’Brien), are pulling away.

“Any loss right now just puts us in more of a hole,” said John Kuester, who wore his frustration and disappointment visibly after this one. “We’ve got to keep grinding things out. This is a tough week.”

Kuester made the decision early in the fourth quarter to ride a five-man second unit of Bynum, Ben Gordon, Chris Wilcox, Charlie Villanueva and Austin Daye, and that group – after seeing Portland expand a four-point lead after three quarters to nine in the first minute of the fourth – played with purpose in going on a 13-3 run to take the lead.

The only starters who saw any time in the fourth were Rodney Stuckey, a defensive substitution for Bynum to guard the bigger Andre Miller, and Greg Monroe, who came on for four-plagued Chris Wilcox, both with 36 seconds to play. And Kuester made it clear that it was as much for what the first group didn’t do as for how the second unit performed.

“I think the third quarter, we couldn’t get anything going, except for Tracy (McGrady),” Kuester said. “That first group has to play with more of an urgency, no question in my mind. … (The second unit) are the ones that got us back into it. They are the ones who took the lead.”

And they might have been the ones to produce the win except for a monster performance from LaMarcus Aldridge, who has been on a tear for two months, averaging 25.8 points and 10.2 rebounds since Dec. 15. He’s been especially good since being snubbed for the All-Star game, four times topping his previous career high with 37 or more points in his last 12 games.

He came within a point of making it five on Sunday, and the 36 he scored against the Pistons – including six in the final four minutes – came on 17 shot attempts. He made 12 and connected on 12 of 13 at the line as the Pistons used Ben Wallace, Monroe and Wilcox at various times.

The Pistons, down three after a killer Aldridge 18-footer taken near the Pistons’ bench with 36 seconds left, countered with an empty possession that culminated with a hurried Austin Daye air ball from the 3-point arc that left everyone muttering.

“We should have gone for two,” Kuester said. “The execution of the play did not work the way we wanted it to.”

“The execution down the stretch was critical,” said Bynum, who had 10 points, two assists and three steals in the fourth. “Everybody just wasn’t on the same page. That’s pretty much all I can say about that.”

Gordon hit 5 of 6 shots in the fourth, including a huge three to tie at 93 with 2:24 to play, was supposed to get the shot on that possession, but he didn’t get open coming off a screen and had to pass it off.

“The ball just didn’t find me,” he said. “I couldn’t find a good look and tried to move it. That’s just how it went. I guess everybody was a little confused and we forced a shot up there. We probably could have gotten a better look.”

“I think the execution was Aldridge and Aldridge and Aldridge,” Kuester said when asked about the execution in the final two minutes. “And then, when they were looking to run a play, they went to Aldridge, pick and roll or post up. So the execution of Aldridge was pretty good.”

It was a game that painfully reflected the Pistons’ season – a game they could have won, but a game that wound up in the loss column because of breakdowns or bad breaks at the most inopportune times. Such as: a Chris Wilcox three-second violation with the score tied followed by a loose ball that squirted away from Wilcox and found Andre Miller, forcing a Wilcox foul that put Miller at the line for the free throws that would give Portland the lead for good, plays 11 seconds apart.

There were enough of those plays in the season’s first two-thirds to dig the Pistons a hole so deep that even the complete elimination of them over the final one-third might not be enough to save a playoff run now.