Out of Gas

Pistons falter in turnover-plagued 4th, but Monroe shows offense’s future

TEAM COLORS

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

– When the Pistons traded Chauncey Billups for a shot at an instant overhaul via free agency three years ago, the looming top free agent appeared to be Carlos Boozer, widely expected to opt out of the final year of his Utah contract in the summer of 2009. But Boozer wanted a max contract or something close to it, and when it became apparent nobody was willing to go that high given his injury history, Boozer opted to finish out his run with Utah and hit free agency in 2010. The Bulls still owe Boozer $60 million over four years and he often finds himself on the bench in fourth quarters when Tom Thibodeau goes with stronger defensive combinations. But he’s still a top-notch rebounder and one of the best mid-range jump shooters among big men in the game. He was on top of his game against the Pistons, knocking down shots from 18, 18, 17, 16 and 17 feet in the first half, missing from 15 and 20, and making his first four shots of the third quarter from 15, 13, 16 and 18 feet. Boozer finished with 23 points and eight rebounds as the Bulls scored a 92-68 win by outscoring the Pistons 24-9 in the fourth quarter.

BLUE COLLAR – Greg Monroe won’t face a stingier defensive frontcourt all season than he’ll see when the Pistons line up against the Bulls. Joakim Noah, Omer Asik and Taj Gibson are all elite defenders, says Pistons coach Lawrence Frank. Monroe, who is gradually evolving into the “hub” of the offense that Frank envisions, again displayed his growing offensive arsenal and confidence. He was particularly effective in a first half in which the Pistons otherwise struggled to score, being limited to 32 points. Monroe, in 16 minutes, gave them eight points, six rebounds and four assists. He finished with 14 points, 10 rebounds and six assists, the latter a career best.

RED FLAG – Last year, the Pistons routinely would get badly outplayed in the third quarter. The second quarter is becoming a problem for them this season. After being outscored 39-18 by the Knicks in Saturday’s 23-point loss at The Palace, they were outscored 22-13 by the Bulls and went scoreless for the first 5:52 before Tayshaun Prince found Jonas Jerebko cutting unguarded to the basket for a dunk on their seventh possession after committing three turnovers and missing their first six shots. By that time, Chicago had opened a nine-point lead it never gave up. In the fourth quarter, the Pistons went dry on their first seven possessions before a Brandon Knight jump shot cut Chicago’s lead to 13. After committing a reasonable nine turnovers through three quarters, the Pistons coughed it up 10 times in the fourth quarter.

CHICAGO – Watching the Pistons come together is a little like the old board game “Concentration.” You see a fragment of the picture for a few minutes, and then it goes back into hiding, and then another fragment in the opposite corner comes into focus, only to similarly fade away. That’s the process Lawrence Frank keeps explaining, and circumstances demand it be applied in full public view as the NBA regular season whizzes by like a freight train at an intersection.

The piece of it Pistons fans got to see on Monday against a team as formidable as any in the NBA in the early going was Greg Monroe at the center of Frank’s offense. The Pistons, who came into the game ranked 30th in the league in scoring, groped for points again at times in the face of Chicago’s smothering defense, limited to 34 in the first half and only nine in a fourth quarter that turned a five-point game late in the third into a 24-point dousing. But what success the Pistons had sprung from using Monroe as the central distribution point.

“Greg has been probably our most consistent guy,” Ben Gordon said after the 92-68 loss, the Pistons’ fourth straight, dropped their record to 2-7. “We’ve got to keep going to him and keep milking the cow until everybody else catches up to his play.”

The Pistons were tied with Chicago after one quarter after spotting the hosts a nine-point lead, but allowed the Bulls a 9-0 run to start the second and that was the margin they were behind at halftime. But Monroe’s first-half line was the stuff of a winner with eight points on 3 of 5 shooting, six rebounds and four assists in 16 minutes against as tough a defensive frontcourt as exists led by Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Omer Asik. He finished with 14 points, 10 boards and a career-best six assists despite sitting down the stretch when the Bulls capitalized on a flurry of Pistons turnovers that undermined any shot at a comeback upset.

“I thought our guys came in with great focus, great fight and spirit,” Lawrence Frank said. “We had – to put it mildly – struggles in that fourth quarter with turnovers. We had 10 turnovers. I think for a stretch we had eight or nine turnovers and five shots taken. That put us in a hole.

“I thought our intent was right. Our spirit was right. Far from perfect, but you definitely saw improvement, first on the defensive end. Our protection was much better, we were getting back in transition better. Offensively, I thought we were just making the right basketball plays. There were moments of very good play, but when you’re playing against a team like this – a very high-level team on their home court – you have to be able to sustain it for four quarters.”

Frank’s defensive tenets include shutting off the paint, taking away the 3-point arc and forcing contested 2-point jumpers. The Pistons handled two of three early, but Chicago proved deadly on jump shots inside the arc. The Bulls started the game 7 of 7 – one Derrick Rose layup, one Rose triple and otherwise deep 2-point jump shots – and took a nine-point lead. The Pistons came back with a 9-0 run to close the quarter and tie the game, but coming back on the road against an elite team is a dangerous proposition – especially when you have to do it multiple times.

Carlos Boozer, who led the Bulls with 23 points and eight rebounds, particularly bedeviled the Pistons. He hit three early jumpers and then hit four straight in the third quarter when the Pistons’ best stretch of basketball might have gotten them the lead. Instead, the best they could do was cut it to five at 64-59 with a minute left in the third quarter on a Damien Wilkins jump shot.

“He was definitely on fire tonight,” said Monroe, who had a hand up on many of the jump shots Boozer drained – nine of them from between 13 and 18 feet. “You’ve got to give him credit. He knocked down every shot he took. That’s something we have to work on and we have to try to eliminate some of those shots.”

“Carlos was great,” Frank said. “He was able to hit all his catch-and-shoot jumpers, whether it was on turnarounds in the post or pick and pops or pick and slips. Carlos is a very, very talented player. There’s a reason why Chicago brought him here. He’s an All-Star, an Olympian.”

The droughts to start the second and fourth quarters, Boozer’s torrid shooting, too many turnovers again. The 24-point margin makes it look even worse than it was. But the Pistons, frustrated by losses mounting in the face of the toughest early-season schedule in the league, found reasons to feel somewhat buoyed, too, by Monday’s performance.

“That’s what this season is about,” said Gordon, whom Frank praised for making a series of subtle but impressive plays through three quarters. “The condensed schedule, everything so packed together, it would be foolish not to, from game to game, focus on the positives and try to draw whatever positive things you can away from these games. Obviously, we didn’t want to finish out from that point when we were down five like that, but it’s something on film we can look at it and learn. We’ve just got to be more consistent throughout and play a full 48 minutes.”

“That’s good,” Monroe said of the way the Pistons pushed the Bulls for three quarters, “but we have to find a way to withstand those runs. We have to find a way to stay in the game in the fourth quarter to give ourselves a chance coming down the stretch.”