Fresh Start, Same Results

Pistons return from break to act out familiar script in loss to Houston

TEAM COLORS

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

– Pistons guards Rodney Stuckey, Tracy McGrady, Ben Gordon and Will Bynum certainly did their part, combining to score 65 points and make better than half of their shots (27 of 52) while passing for 12 assists and committing only four turnovers. Bynum was especially efficient, scoring 21 points in 23 minutes and shooting 9 of 14 with six assists and zero turnovers. Stuckey kept the Pistons close at the start of the third quarter, providing nine of the team’s first 11 points as Houston opened a lead, and he finished with 19 points. Gordon added 15 and McGrady had 10 points and eight boards.

BLUE COLLAR – Rookie Greg Monroe looked like he was dragging over the final week leading to the All-Star break, and even though he didn’t exactly kick back and relax over the long weekend – Monroe flew to Los Angeles and back and participated in the Rookie-Sophomore Challenge – he came back looking like the player who really began opening eyes when he moved into the starting lineup in early January. In 27 minutes, Monroe gave the Pistons a double-double with 12 points and 12 rebounds, and he wound up guarding Luis Scola for a good chunk of the first half, combining with Ben Wallace to keep Pistons killer Scola to eight points and nine boards.

RED FLAG – Tayshaun Prince didn’t play in the fourth quarter, a rarity when the game is on the line, because he had been able to contribute so little over the first three quarters. Prince shot 0 for 9 – the second-worst shooting game of his career; he went 0 for 10 at New York in January 2008 – and finished with just one point. He also managed just one rebound in his nearly 30 minutes of playing time and had no steals or blocked shots.

The unofficial second half of the season looked a lot like the 57 games that delivered the Pistons to the All-Star break 15 games under .500 and clinging to playoff hopes by their fingernails. Against another struggling team, in another game the Pistons could have won but for a flat third quarter or a failure to make plays in the last two minutes, they instead lost, further deepening their hole in the Eastern Conference standings.

“All of our losses have been difficult,” Will Bynum said after the 108-100 loss to Houston, which came into the game 26-31 but outscored the Pistons 15-6 after two Bynum free throws gave the Pistons a 94-93 lead with under five minutes to go. “They’ve kind of pretty much been the same thing every time. We’ve got to figure out a way to execute better down the stretch and get stops.”

“It’s the same ol’,” John Kuester said. “You’ve just got to be smart coming down the stretch.”

Kuester went with an unorthodox lineup in that stretch drive, bringing Rodney Stuckey on for Charlie Villanueva as Bynum was shooting those free throws to give the Pistons the lead.

He did it, in large measure, because it was the guards – primarily, Bynum, Stuckey and Ben Gordon – who were most effective in attacking Houston’s defense. Bynum led the Pistons with 21 points and six assists against no turnovers in 23 minutes. Stuckey had 19, nine in the third quarter when he provided virtually all of his team’s offense until Kuester waved his bench into the game when Houston quickly built an 11-point lead from a halftime tie. And Gordon finished with 15.

Bynum, Gordon and Stuckey have been thrilled when Kuester puts them out together since they became teammates to start the 2009-10 season. The lineup showed early promise before ankle injuries wrecked the seasons of Bynum and Gordon, but this year – with the addition of McGrady and Austin Daye’s emergence – their chances to play together have been few and far between.

“I don’t think it hurt us defensively – I think they just made shots,” Bynum said. “If anything, it helped – being able to attack, being able to pressure the ball upcourt, having quicker guys out there to rotate quicker and playing with a whole lot more effort.”

“We felt we could attack, we could defend with that lineup still,” Kuester said. “That wasn’t the issue. We got looks. We just couldn’t finish it. I had no problems with the adjustment. We’ve got to be smart going down the stretch.”

Kuester rewarded the bench by letting it play a good chunk of the fourth quarter after cutting the 11-point deficit to three entering the last period, and that bench – Gordon, Bynum, Villanueva, Daye and Chris Wilcox – played especially well offensively, scoring 19 points in a little over seven minutes.

But after Kuester went small, they failed to score on their next six possessions, including two open Daye corner triples and an especially damaging miss by Gordon in transition when he tried to attack off a Houston turnover, wound up taking an out-of-control shot that missed and fueled a fast break the other way that resulted in Rockets rookie Patrick Patterson scoring and getting fouled.

“It was a one-point game at that stage,” Kuester said. “He wanted to be aggressive. It just didn’t pan out the way he wanted it to. He had some things going his way. He wishes he had that back.”

That, too, is the story of the season – most of their 37 losses swinging on two or three plays the Pistons would like to have back.