Caught Shorthanded

Minus Stuckey, Gordon, Pistons can’t keep up with 76ers

TEAM COLORS

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

– The improvement Greg Monroe made offensively over the summer – even without benefit of working with Pistons coaches due to the lockout – has been evident and impressive. Monroe finished with 22 points, seven rebounds, three assists, two steals and two blocked shots. He scored in any variety of ways – mid-range jump shot, hooks with both the left and right hands, drives to the basket and even in transition off a nifty steal and conversion against three defenders. The Pistons needed every point Monroe could muster and then some, too, as they were without starting guards Rodney Stuckey (groin strain) and Ben Gordon (personal reasons). They only managed 73 points on a night they shot just 36 percent and whiffed on all 10 of their shots from the 3-point line.

BLUE COLLAR – Jason Maxiell has had his ups and downs over the past few seasons, going from the starting lineup to outside the rotation. But he’s been the first frontcourt substitute early in Lawrence Frank’s first season and, after a few quiet games, he’s been rewarding Frank’s faith in him. Maxiell provided 10 points, five boards and two steals in 18 productive minutes. If Maxiell can knock down his mid-range jump shot, hold his own on the defensive boards and give the Pistons some of the momentum-turning plays he routinely provided as an up-and-coming player under Flip Saunders – the blocked shots, the lob dunks and the emphatic put-backs – he’ll be a very valuable part of the equation for Lawrence Frank.

RED FLAG – Turnovers have been an issue for the Pistons in the early going. They came into Friday’s game at Philadelphia averaging nearly 16 per game. They finished right at their average against the 76ers, but it wasn’t just the number of turnovers; it was the timing and the areas of the court where they made them, often fueling Philadelphia transition opportunities for a team that thrives in transition. With the Pistons down by six early in the third quarter, three turnovers in four possessions allowed the 76ers to stretch the lead to 14 and effectively cinch the win.

The Philadelphia 76ers have a roster born to run, featuring coltish athletes like Andre Igoudala, Lou Williams, Jrue Holiday and Thaddeus Young. The Pistons enabled their running by turning the ball over and missing shots. If they’d have taken care of the ball a little better and shot it a little straighter, the Pistons might have been able to overcome the handicap of being without their starting backcourt. But 16 turnovers and 36 percent shooting – including an ugly 0 of 10 from the 3-point arc – cut them off at the knees Friday night in Philadelphia, resulting in a 96-73 loss that dropped them to 2-5.

The Pistons were within six points early in the fourth quarter when a stretch of three quick turnovers enabled Philly to blow the lead out to 14 points.

“It’s 68-62 with nine and change left,” said Pistons coach Lawrence Frank, forced to start rookie Brandon Knight alongside Austin Daye – who didn’t get off the bench in Wednesday’s loss to Chicago – because the Pistons were without both Rodney Stuckey (groin strain) and Ben Gordon (personal matter). “We turn it over, they score. … A six-point game becomes a game that gets out of hand. Especially on the road, you want to get the game to the six-minute mark where it’s anyone’s game. Unfortunately, when the dam exploded, it really exploded.”

The loss started the first hold-your-breath schedule stretch of the compressed 66-game season. The Pistons host the Knicks at The Palace on Saturday night, play at Chicago on Monday, host Dallas on Tuesday and then play a back-to-back at Milwaukee and Charlotte next Thursday and Friday to wrap up six games in an eight-night span.

“We had a couple of turnovers in a row, led to some easy buckets,” said Greg Monroe, who gave the Pistons 22 points. “On defense, we gave up some open shots. Once you get it down to six and they get two or three easy buckets in a row and the momentum shifts, it’s hard to recuperate.”

“We knew they had shooters,” Jonas Jerebko said. “They like to run the floor, and if they get turnovers, they’re going to run the floor. We’ve just got to play better than that.”

The 16 Pistons turnovers were right at their average for the season, but they were committing them against the wrong team. The 76ers thrive in transition and they turned those 16 errors in 25 points. A Young dunk off a Knight turnover, a Jodie Meeks 3-pointer after a Jason Maxiell turnover and a Meeks layup and free throw off another Knight turnover constituted the critical stretch early in the fourth quarter when Philadelphia more than doubled a six-point lead to cut off a Pistons comeback.

“We were right there,” Knight said. “We just made a lot of mistakes, a lot of turnovers, a lot of defensive mess-ups and that led to them going up 14.”

“We obviously have to be better,” Frank said. “We had 16 turnovers. You want one for one. If you have 16 turnovers, the most points you want to give off of that is 16. We gave up 27. That means your turnovers are basically their first pass to their fast break.”

If there was good news for the Pistons, it was the play of Monroe and the calamity they avoided. Monroe’s 22 points showed off his increasingly sophisticated scoring arsenal, to go with seven boards, three assists, two steals and two blocked shots. Besides Monroe’s 22, the only other Pistons in double figures – and all of them barely, with 10 points apiece, were Knight, Maxiell and Will Bynum.

“Greg did a lot of good things,” Frank said. “I thought he was very assertive on both ends. Greg played a very good game.”

The scare came late in the first half, when both Knight and Austin Daye suffered ankle injuries. Knight limped up and down the floor twice before a dead ball allowed him to head straight to the locker room. Daye twisted his ankle trying to tip in Will Bynum’s runner at the halftime buzzer. Knight was able to start the third quarter. Daye, who started the game alongside him in the backcourt to make up for the absence of Stuckey and Gordon, entered the game soon after.

“It’s all right so far,” Knight said after the game, his right foot plunged into ice water. “But I’m still a little bit warm, so we’ll see tomorrow. I think I’ll be fine.”

Neither player had much luck putting the ball in the basket, though. Knight was 5 of 15 and Daye 2 of 11, continuing to miss the jump shots that had been the strength of his game while averaging 18.5 in two preseason games.

“This is the NBA,” Frank said. “You’re never going to be 100 percent. There’s not a better medical staff in the league than we have, so we’ll do everything we have to get healthy and put forth the guys that are ready to go.”