Going Down Fighting

Over time, wrenching loss might be recalled for passing of torch

TEAM COLORS

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

– Greg Monroe really wasn’t hot – he missed at least three or four first-half shots he normally makes around the rim – and yet he still had 20 points and 10 rebounds when he had to go to the bench with four fouls with five minutes left in the third quarter. When he re-entered the game with about seven minutes to go, he was a big part of a comeback that saw the Pistons take a one-point lead on Austin Daye’s clutch jumper with 11 seconds to go. Monroe finished with a career-best 27 points plus 12 rebounds in 32 minutes.

BLUE COLLAR – Tyler Hansbrough had many doubters despite a banner four-year career at North Carolina, but he’s proving them more wrong by the day. Hansbrough’s non-stop motor was the major reason Indiana spurted to a 16-point lead in the first half after a tightly contest first 10 minutes. Hansbrough finished with 21 points and 12 boards in 32 high-energy minutes. He also picked up two steals and had a number of other deflections.

RED FLAG – Tayshaun Prince, one night after shooting 0-for-9 in a one-point, one-rebound performance, started slowly again, missing all three of his shot attempts and both of his foul shots without grabbing a rebound or passing for an assist in nine first-quarter minutes. Then he went to the bench with what was described as a sore sacroiliac joint – extreme lower back. Atop the disc injury that caused him to miss games for the first time in his NBA career last season, it could be ominous news. Back injuries make NBA teams nervous.

In the suffocating gloom of the near view, Wednesday’s loss to Indiana will be defined as the night that snuffed out realistic hopes of a playoff push by the 2010-11 Pistons. In the rosier glow of the long view, it could well be recalled as the night the Pistons passed the torch to a generation led by Greg Monroe and Austin Daye.

Monroe brought them back from a 16-point deficit with a career night – 27 points and 12 boards – and Daye put them over the top, coming off the bench to knock down exactly the type of big shot he’s beginning to make a habit. This one came with 11 seconds left and gave the Pistons a 101-100 lead – their first lead since late in the first quarter.

It all will be buried in the morning-after recounting under the headline-grabbing dunk of Brandon Rush, fed cannily by Danny Granger after sucking Pistons defenders to him, for the game-winner with 5.4 seconds left. The loss leaves the Pistons eight games behind Indiana in the loss column with only 23 games remaining, the Pacers currently sitting in the No. 8 playoff spot in the East.

Monroe and Daye, though, took big steps in their progression to players around whom Joe Dumars will be looking to place complementary pieces.

Monroe’s 27 points were a career high, in large measure because his 17 shot attempts also were a career high. He missed a handful of shots in the first half that he normally makes, too, or his scoring total could have risen well beyond 30.

Getting Monroe more touches now becomes an option for John Kuester and his staff, who to this point have been content to let him find his own opportunities by cleaning the offensive glass or finding holes in the defense and making himself available for entry passes. But he’s so efficient scoring around the basket with either hand, using his body and the rim to protect the ball from shot-blockers, building evidence by the week that the Pistons might have found the low-post scorer every NBA team seeks.

“Greg Monroe,” John Kuester said after the rookie’s ninth double-double, “was phenomenal.”

Monroe’s postgame reaction surely will do nearly as much to underscore how strongly Joe Dumars and his staff believes in his future as his 27 and 12 did.

“Early in the game, I was off,” he said. “I put some of the blame on myself. I missed a lot of easy buckets. (Tracy McGrady) kicked my butt – I kicked my butt. I missed about six or seven easy layups early in the game, open jump shots. We still find a way to stay in the game, but if I make those easy buckets, we win the game.”

“Greg could have had 40 points tonight,” McGrady said. “I got on his butt in the first half. It looked like he was out of sync. It looked like he was still in LA – All-Star weekend. But the young fella fought back in the second half, played extremely well. Rebounding, being in the right spots, finding him on the offensive end – he was scoring. He did a great job using his body. Greg did a great job of getting the ball up and making baskets for us.”

As for Daye, this big shot was a little different than the others he’s knocked down this year – the turnaround triple from the corner to force overtime in a December win over Philadelphia, or the big triples he hit to win a January game at Orlando – in that he spent most of the night on the bench, coming in cold on the timeout before

“It was a pick and roll for me and we knew they were going to trap me,” McGrady said. “Initially, it was going to leave Austin open on the perimeter. But they did a great job getting back to Austin. He just made a great play, a pretty athletic play, and made a basket.”

Indeed, Daye had no great option when Indiana correctly anticipated the play and had him blanketed and isolated on the left wing. But he put the ball on the floor against Pacers rookie Paul George, whose best traits are his length and athleticism, to give himself just the room he needed to launch the potential game-winner.

Everything about the play – from putting it on the floor against a rangy defender to having the courage to take a tough shot with a big game on the line – spoke to the unusual self-confidence Daye possesses given his inexperience.

It didn’t add up to a win on a night the Pistons desperately needed one to stoke the flickering embers of their playoff hopes, but it further validated the prospects of a brighter tomorrow.