No D in Denver

Another sizzling start digs a hole Pistons can’t escape in loss to Nuggets

TEAM COLORS

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

– Anybody wearing a Denver uniform. The Nuggets sunk their first eight shots of the game – all of them assisted, the best start in an NBA game in nine years, since the Lakers picked up assists on their first 10 baskets – and hit the 100-point mark with almost nine minutes still to play. Five Denver players had reached double figures by the end of the third quarter and four others were within a basket. Denver was particularly good from the 3-point line and nobody was hotter than the mercurial J.R. Smith, who scored 21 of his 31 in the fourth quarter, after the game had been decided, and was 9 of 15 from the arc. Smith was 7 of 12 from the 3-point line in the fourth quarter alone. Denver set records for a Pistons opponent for both 3-point attempts (37) and makes (18).

BLUE COLLAR – With Carmelo Anthony taking his talents to Broadway, scoring is a shared responsibility in Denver these days. Nene didn’t get many chances to be the first option as long as Anthony and Chauncey Billups dotted the roster, but he had his way inside against the Pistons, especially in the first half when he finished with 17 points (6 of 7 shooting) and seven boards. Nene finished with 18 points and 11 boards despite getting just eight shot attempts.

RED FLAG – The three-game road trip to San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Denver sunk the Pistons to dead last in the NBA in field-goal percentage defense. They went into Saturday night’s game yielding baskets at a .483 clip, just one-thousandth of a point worse than Toronto’s notoriously bad defense. But that gap will widen with Saturday’s passive defensive effort that saw Denver shoot a scorching 56.1 percent.

To theorists who endorse the notion that lineup upheaval most affects a team’s chemistry at the defensive end, the 2010-11 Detroit Pistons are your go-to body of evidence.

John Kuester reconfigured his starting lineup again Saturday night – that makes 17 iterations through 67 games – by going back to Rip Hamilton and Rodney Stuckey as the starting backcourt and using Tayshaun Prince and Tracy McGrady at forward with Greg Monroe in the middle.

And until the Pistons – playing their third road game against a Western Conference heavyweight in four nights – ran out of gas midway through the third quarter, the results offensively were positive. With 6:46 left in the third quarter, the Pistons had scored 72 points and were shooting better than 50 percent. They were also tied after trailing through once Denver took a 9-0 lead and hit its first eight shots.

But defensively, the same problems that have plagued them all season were in full view. Denver shot 65 percent en route to 66 first-half points and crushed the Pistons with a 21-2 barrage to close the third quarter after that 72-all tie. It ended 131-101 with Denver closing the game with a rush of 3-point attempts.

“No matter what lineup we start,” Prince said, “we can score the basketball. It’s a matter of us getting stops. This has been our problem all year – the defensive end of the floor. It’s not just tonight. If you don’t communicate on the defensive end, things can happen like this today.”

The 131 Denver scored were a season-high, besting the 125 the New York Knicks scored in a double-overtime win over the Pistons at The Palace early in the season. The 30-point margin of victory was the most ever in the series. And Denver set Pistons opponent records for both 3-pointers made (18) and attempted (37).

“They shot lights out,” John Kuester said. “You’ve got to give Denver a lot of credit. We’re coming off a back to back and they just ran us. It was 72-72 and I liked the pace of the game and all of a sudden we really did run out of gas.”

By taking Ben Gordon out of the starting lineup and moving McGrady to forward, the door opened for Will Bynum’s return to the rotation after sitting out the past two games. It closed on Jason Maxiell, who didn’t play as Prince and McGrady both took cracks at guarding Nuggets starting power forward Kenyon Martin.

The Pistons went 10 deep with Bynum and Gordon in the backcourt and Chris Wilcox, Charlie Villanueva and Austin Daye up front on a second unit that played en masse to start both the second and fourth quarters.

No combination, though, had much success keeping Denver from sprinting to big numbers. The Pistons again proved vulnerable in the two worst spots a defense could be exploited – in the paint and at the 3-point line. The Nuggets’ record-setting 3-point numbers were inflated by fourth-quarter chaos when the game got out of hand – they shot 8 of 18 in the final period, with J.R. Smith going 7 of 12 – but even before then they were getting irresistibly open looks from the arc.

Kuester cited the same lack of communication as Prince. To simplify matters since the Pistons didn’t have the benefit of a practice with their new lineup, he instructed the Pistons to switch on every pick that didn’t involve Greg Monroe’s position.

“You’ve got to communicate,” he said. “Every time you’re on the floor. We had talked about making adjustments. There were a number of times where guys just didn’t communicate. You’re on the road, in the last game of a road trip, and you really have to lock in. The first half, we did some decent things, but you have to get some stops.”

Did the lineup upheaval contribute to the lack of communication?

“It’s a tough question, but it could,” Bynum said. “I know guys haven’t had the court time with certain lineups that you would like to have to be able to get stops and know the correct rotations that we’re trying to go to when we’re in those lineups. It’s kind of a spur of the moment type of thing. Hopefully, we can go home and compete to the end and try to get some wins.”