That’s a Rap

Pistons repel Toronto comeback this time, win season series 3-1

TEAM COLORS

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

– Greg Monroe continues to emerge as the bright spot of the Pistons’ season, playing one of his finest all-around games with 21 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. Monroe’s offensive rebound and basket with 3:39 to play, 13 seconds after re-entering the game, was the one that finally seemed to put the game out of reach, giving the Pistons a 12-point lead that wouldn’t be challenged. He also forced a steal that led to a Pistons fast break and blocked a shot to save a Toronto layup.

BLUE COLLAR – Rodney Stuckey was passive-aggressive – he was aggressive in attacking the paint, but pass-happy once he got in there, even passing out of an alley-oop attempt in favor of a corner 3-pointer. He finished with a career-high 14 assists, but he did more than distribute. He played inspired defense. The two steals that show up in the box score don’t do justice to the pressure he put on the ball to help slow Toronto’s offense after the Raptors got off to a sizzling start in the third quarter.

RED FLAG – For all the good work the Pistons did on the offensive end, they continue to allow baskets too easily. Toronto wound up shooting 50 percent – that’s the fourth straight opponent and fifth in the last six games to make at least half its shots. Toronto is the only one of the bunch that didn’t beat the Pistons.

Maybe the low point of a Pistons season that’s been saddled with its share of candidates came Dec. 11 when Toronto erased a 24-point deficit late in the third quarter to win by five. A similar storyline was playing out at The Palace on Wednesday – a 20-point lead had melted to five early in the fourth quarter – but the Pistons dug in and played with a fire that has too often eluded them.

In a game notable for the return of Ben Wallace to the starting lineup and a season-high first-quarter scoring total, the signature moments of the win came in the early moments of the fourth quarter, when John Kuester – who started the team’s four oldest players – left a group of young players to sink or swim on their own.

The Raptors had cut a 20-point first-half deficit to five with nine minutes remaining, but Kuester let those veteran starters – Wallace, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince and Tracy McGrady – cool their heels for nearly another five minutes. By the time he waved Prince, Hamilton and McGrady back, the lead had been restored to 10.

“I know it’s pretty hard for them – they sit there for the whole third and then try to play a good three, four minutes to start the fourth and not let the game change,” said Tayshaun Prince, who added 22 to Hamilton’s 24 to lead the Pistons. “They let (Toronto) cut it down, but coach stuck with them and they made some plays. (Chris) Wilcox got some big rebounds, (others made) some nice passes, (Ben Gordon) hit a big three for us – they did some nice things in the middle of the fourth to help us out.”

Where the Pistons grew passive in their December meltdown and let Toronto continue to press once momentum turned, this time those backups – Gordon, Wilcox, Austin Daye, Rodney Stuckey and Charlie Villanueva – threw a frenzied defense at the Raptors and began to force hurried shots and followed by locking up rebounds. The Pistons outrebounded Toronto 18-10 in the fourth quarter and held them to 39 percent shooting after the Raptors shot 53.3 percent through three.

“That veteran group did a great job of leading,” Kuester said. “I thought they set the tone. The energy of the guys on the bench, watching them perform, they just came in and kept it going. Tracy and Tayshaun and Rip were all saying to those guys, keep it going, keep it going. It was neat to watch how we were reacting with each other.”

Greg Monroe went for another double-double, 21 points and 10 rebounds, and added five assists, a block and a steal.

“He just finds a way to be in the right place at the right time,” Prince said of the rookie. “We do a good job of looking for him because we know he’s a great passer out of the post or the high post. He’s always ducking in. He uses his body well on the offensive glass.

“If we’re moving the ball like we did tonight, it puts him in a good position to get in sweet spots in the painted area and we know how good he is in the painted area, making plays for himself or his teammates.”

The five assists tied Monroe’s career high; Rodney Stuckey’s 14 assists set a new one for him as he became the first Piston ever to get to 10 assists without attempting a shot. He wound up shooting only once, a contested transition layup that missed.

“My guys were open and they were making shots,” he said. “We opened the floor and I found them. I passed up a couple of shots tonight when I should have shot the ball, but I was just looking for my teammates tonight.”

“I thought he was attacking, but he wasn’t attacking for himself – he was attacking for others,” Kuester said. “The way he played tonight, I loved it. I thought his body language defensively was outstanding. He was into the game, but all of our players were.”

Even in the fourth quarter, when another big lead had dwindled to single digits and momentum had clearly turned. In a season filled with such games that turned out badly, this one, at least, did not.