Future Stars

Monroe, Knight dazzle despite tough Pistons’ loss at Milwaukee

TEAM COLORS

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

– Joe Dumars’ two lottery picks looked every bit the part despite the Pistons dropping their sixth straight game, to Milwaukee despite cutting a 17-point deficit to three with just under two minutes to go. Brandon Knight took another step in his education as an NBA point guard, learning with every game what he should and shouldn’t try, what he can and can’t yet do. Knight scored 11 first-quarter points to keep the Pistons close after a loose defensive start – the Bucks scored on their first five shots and led 11-2 – put them in a 10-point hole. He came back in the second quarter to attack the basket twice within a minute and get rewarded with four free throws, one more than he’d attempted in his first 10 games. He pushed in transition once and zipped a perfect pass to a cutting Tayshaun Prince for a layup. Knight finished with 20 points on 7 of 9 shooting and added three assists. He got plenty of help from Greg Monroe, who had racked up a double-double by midway through the third quarter and finished with a career-high 32 points on 12 of 16 shooting to go with 16 rebounds, one off his career best. Monroe got to the foul line eight times and made them all, scored on nice moves around the rim and showed off the growing range and confidence in his jump shot.

BLUE COLLAR – It didn’t take Rodney Stuckey long to show what the Pistons’ offense was missing while he was out the past four games with a groin injury. Stuckey’s ability to get to the basket was sorely missed for a team that doesn’t have a wealth of options for points near the rim. Stuckey entered with 2:32 left in the first quarter and the Pistons trailing by 10. The Pistons quickly tied the game as he contributed six quick points to go with two assists and two rebounds in about eight minutes. In 21 minutes coming off the bench as the Pistons break him back into the lineup cautiously, Stuckey scored 11 points to go with four assists and three rebounds. He made all seven of his foul shots, an ingredient the Pistons missed in his absence.

RED FLAG – Are the Pistons struggling because they’re digging themselves such big early holes, or are they digging themselves big early holes because they’re struggling? For the third straight game, the opponent got off to a sizzling start. Chicago made its first seven shots of the game on Monday, Dallas dropped its first eight on Tuesday and Milwaukee made its first five on Thursday as the Bucks took an 11-2 lead out of the gate. The Pistons, overall, played a much better game than they did in the loss to Dallas, cutting down on their turnovers and playing with much better offensive pace. But they couldn’t dig in defensively for anything approaching a prolonged stretch as Milwaukee shot 47 percent.

The Pistons might fray some nerves waiting for the future to arrive, but they got an encouraging dose of what it might look like when it does despite Thursday’s 102-93 loss to Milwaukee. It’s a future dominated by Greg Monroe and Brandon Knight, the fruits Joe Dumars has plucked for the anguish of two lottery-bound seasons.

Monroe scored a career-high 32 points and grabbed 16 rebounds – the last two Pistons to reach those numbers: Dennis Rodman and Grant Hill, pretty nice company – while Knight scored an efficient 20. Together, the twin pillars of the Pistons’ future shot 19 of 25.

“There’s no excusing a loss,” Monroe said, “but the effort and how we should play was definitely there tonight. We have to build from tonight, keep playing this way and get better. We have to limit our turnovers. We can’t allow teams to make those big runs and we’ve got to finish games. But the effort we had tonight is the effort we’re going to need every night.”

Monroe continued to exhibit his expanding offensive repertoire and the confidence in his ability to put it to full use, hitting a double-double by the mid-point of the third quarter. He got to the foul line eight times – he made them all; in fact, the Pistons made all 24 of their attempts and the Bucks were perfect in 17 tries. But Monroe also dropped jump shots, made strong moves around the rim and did it all against Milwaukee’s All-Star-caliber center, Andrew Bogut.

“Greg was tremendous,” Lawrence Frank said. “You can’t say enough good things about his performance. You just ride him, ride him, ride him. You could see, right from the beginning, he had great pace. He was going at his speed. He had (defenders) in the rocking chair. He’s getting better and now he has to build on it. It’s not going to be 32 and (16) every night, but once you show you can do it, the jig is up. We expect it. The bar keeps on raising.”

Knight did his best early to keep the Pistons from falling out of contention when leaky defense allowed the Bucks to grab a quick double-digits lead, scoring 11 in the first quarter. Knight scored with great variety, as well, hitting from deep, on mid-range floaters, at the rim and even at the foul line.

“We started off the game just attacking the basket, getting to the free-throw line, just basically trying to live in the paint,” Knight said. “I think that’s why we had a little better flow. We got into the paint, kicked it out and we popped the ball a little bit more than we have been.”

“Brandon got better tonight,” Frank said. “The guy was in the paint. He was attacking. We actually got some transition baskets, some passes ahead, got a lob dunk. That’s a little step, but again, who are we going to be tomorrow? That’s the challenge.”

One other factor helps enliven the offense: Rodney Stuckey, after missing four games with a groin injury, played 20 minutes and made his mark with 11 points and four assists, getting to the line seven times.

Stuckey made an immediate impact upon entering a game that started the way too many others have of late. The Bucks made their first five shots to take a 11-2 lead, just as Dallas made its first eight shots two nights earlier and Chicago its first seven the night before that, all establishing double-digit leads in the first quarter. Stuckey immediately does what he does best – attack the basket – and in doing so he got points and free throws for himself and set up two teammates for easy buckets, as well.

But the bad start defensively meant the Pistons were fighting uphill all night. Another rough patch midway through the third quarter put them down by 17 points, but they cut it back to 11 by the end of the quarter and came within three with under two minutes left before the Bucks scored on consecutive possessions to seal the win. Milwaukee punished the Pistons from the 3-point arc, hitting half of their 22 attempts and outscoring them by 24 points on triples.

“That’s a problem,” Frank said. “There’s no consolation prizes, but there was a different spirit out there, a different fight out there. No one is happy with losing, but we need to continue to have performances like this, where the moment of truth – the last six minutes of the game – it can be anybody’s game and then you’ve got to get stops and you’ve got to get quality shots.

“Our guys bent but didn’t break. We just have to keep marching forward and grinding. … We showed some resolve. We know we have it in us. Sustainability – the ability to do it over 48 minutes – is what it’s going to take to win.”