Scorching Spurs

14-of-14 start propels San Antonio to 7-point win over Pistons

TEAM COLORS

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

– Rip Hamilton has moved back into the rotation, but not the starting lineup. Still, he’s playing starter’s minutes many nights now and logged 31 against the Spurs, posting his best scoring night since he went for 35 at Toronto on Dec. 22 – his first game coming off the bench for the season. Hamilton scored 20 points, shooting 9 of 15, and earned praise afterward from Kuester for his hard-nosed play and practice habits since their recent meeting helped pave the way for his return to the rotation.

BLUE COLLAR – Antonio McDyess has talked about retirement with one season left on the three-year deal he signed with the Spurs after leaving the Pistons as a free agent, but the situation in San Antonio suits him so well, don’t be surprised if he comes back for one more run. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich moved McDyess into the starting lineup Wednesday to celebrate his 1,000th NBA game and McDyess played just like the guy who endeared himself to Pistons fans for five seasons, knocking down open jump shots, playing solid defense and grabbing rebounds, finishing with eight points and five boards in 22 minutes.

RED FLAG – The Spurs were embarrassed at home in their last game, losing on national TV to the Lakers and trailing by 35 at one point. So the Pistons knew San Antonio was going to bring its A game. They just didn’t expect perfection, which is what the Spurs were for the first nine minutes, making their first 14 shots. Sure, there were four layups and a dunk, but that still meant nine other shots. They were shot from an average of 16 feet from the rim, including two 3-pointers. The Spurs shot 80 percent (28 of 35) in the first half and finished at 64.3 percent for the game.

John Kuester said Monday he had a feeling Tracy McGrady would get another chance to play soon. Turns out that was less clairvoyance than choice. The Pistons coach made the lineup switch Wednesday, reinstalling McGrady as his starting point guard and moving Rodney Stuckey – who had averaged 21 points and eight assists over the past four games since replacing McGrady – back to the bench.

Stuckey, who before the recent switch had been the starting shooting guard alongside McGrady, came off the bench and played both spots. Will Bynum was the odd man out on a night the Pistons fell behind by 19 in the face of San Antonio’s scorching start, but played hard and actually pulled within five in the final minutes before losing 111-104.

“Right now, we’re searching,” Kuester said afterward. “We’re always searching, it seems that way. We’re always looking to see who is going to give us the most amount in certain spots and certain situations. I thought Tracy was outstanding tonight – his leadership and his ability to control the game was outstanding.”

It hasn’t mattered much to the Spurs who lines up against them this season. And the late switcheroo sure didn’t disrupt their mojo in a season that’s seen them sprint from the gates with a 52-12 record. But they were humbled at home on national TV in their last game, losing big to the Lakers, so the Pistons expected going in that they were going to absorb the best shot of a team accustomed to throwing haymakers.

That’s exactly what they got: San Antonio’s best shot. Fourteen straight to start the game, in fact. The Spurs didn’t miss for the first nine minutes of the game, by which time the score was 33-20. The Pistons would fall 19 down just before halftime, but they cut the lead to six late in the third quarter, saw the Spurs bump it back to 15 with a 9-0 run, then cut it to five again with two minutes left before another 5-0 Spurs run put them away. The Pistons haven’t fallen into a groove all season and Kuester might still be groping to find the right lineup combinations with 17 games remaining, but on a night a team with four NBA titles in the last 12 years shatters some of its own franchise records, it was probably more about the Spurs than the Pistons.

“They’re playing with a lot of confidence,” Kuester said. “They’re coming off a game where they didn’t play well and I knew (Gregg Popovich) was going to have them really geared up to play at a high level and they did. But after we got hit in the fact in the first quarter, we responded.”

“A great team, they always respond after losing a basketball game,” said Tayshuan Prince, who matched Greg Monroe’s 16 points on a night Rip Hamilton came off the bench to score 20. “We knew they would come out aggressive and run their offense to a T. We didn’t expect them to shoot 80 percent in the first half. We just didn’t defend well at all.”

Since the Spurs made Tim Duncan the No. 1 choice in the 1997 draft – a bit of serendipity for a team already blessed with David Robinson that has made everything that has since transpired possible – San Antonio has averaged a 56-26 record and won at least 50 every season.

For much of the decade past, the Pistons were to the East what the Spurs were to the West. That San Antonio has managed to extend its window of opportunity for another three years beyond the Pistons’ last trip to the NBA’s final four is first and foremost a testament to the greatness of Duncan. As good as those Pistons were, they simply didn’t have anyone quite like Duncan.

In Monroe, the Pistons hope they have someone they can similarly build around. And after a quiet first half, Monroe took to the challenge. He put up 11 points and eight boards after halftime and hit the floor at least three times to keep loose balls alive.

“He’s one of the best bigs of this generation – he’s one of the best bigs ever,” Monroe said of Duncan. “He’s obviously very skilled, he plays hard and every second you have to be on your Ps and Qs.

“I was trying to play hard. That’s one thing I’ve been trying to contribute every game. Just play hard – and my team started to play hard, as well. That’s when we made our run.”

But it was a night that ultimately belonged to the veteran Spurs, including old friend Antonio McDyess, inserted into the starting lineup by Popovich on the occasion of his 1,000th NBA game.

“It felt great,” McDyess said. “I can feel it in my body also that it’s 1,000 games, but to actually play my 1,000th game against my old team definitely feels good.”