Trumped in Texas

TEAM COLORS

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

– Tayshaun Prince, coming off a season-high 20 points in Sunday’s loss to Golden State, continued to show signs that he’s finding his niche in Lawrence Frank’s offense. When the Pistons were struggling for points early Tuesday at Houston – they scored 10 in the first 10 minutes – it was Prince who kept them afloat, scoring 10 in the first quarter. He finished with 20 again and ended both the first and third quarters with baskets at the buzzer, a layup in the first and a jumper a step inside the 3-point arc in the third. Prince was on the bench early in the fourth quarter when Houston began an 8-0 run that stretched a manageable six-point deficit to 14. The Pistons, who trailed by 10 heading into the fourth quarter, were outscored 28-21 in the final period.

BLUE COLLAR – Luis Scola is usually a Pistons killer, which might have been a factor prompting Lawrence Frank to alter the starting lineup and move Ben Wallace in for Jonas Jerebko. It worked well enough on Scola, kept under control with 14 points and five rebounds. But Samuel Dalembert got away from the Pistons, finishing with 14 and 12 after putting up eight points and eight rebounds in the first half, when he shot 4 of 6 and helped pad Houston’s total of 28 points in the paint. Dalembert also has to be given the majority of the credit for disrupting Monroe’s offensive game after he’d averaged 25.3 over his last three games.

RED FLAG – Take your pick: The Pistons didn’t shoot a free throw until late in the third quarter and only got there nine times for the game, three in the final minute. Leading scorer Greg Monroe didn’t score a point until early in the fourth and finished with four. The Pistons forced 21 Houston turnovers but allowed too many easy baskets to make the Rockets pay for their sloppiness. With Monroe limited to his four points, that meant the four primary Pistons big men – Monroe, Ben Wallace, Jason Maxiell and Jonas Jerebko – combined to score only 11 points, putting all of the scoring burden on their perimeter players.

HOUSTON – Their first free throw shot came late in the third quarter. Their leading scorer, Greg Monroe, didn’t get on the board until early in the fourth. They allowed an alarming 28 points in the paint in the first half. They were outrebounded by 12 through three quarters.

Yet, somehow, for all that didn’t go right, the Pistons found themselves trailing a Houston team on a three-game winning streak by just six points three minutes into the fourth quarter. And then the Rockets made them pay for all those glaring holes on the stat sheet. Houston scored on five straight possessions – the last two on layups off of Pistons turnovers – while the Pistons were scoring only once, and that workable six-point deficit suddenly ballooned to 14.

“Once we were there within six, that was kind of the breaking point,” Ben Gordon said. “Not kind of – it was. We just didn’t get over the hump to change our luck and get the lead.”

“That’s the same mark, basically, every game,” Monroe said. “Most games, we get it down to about six with some time left and it goes south from there. That’s the time we have to make runs and we have to make stops and get good possessions.

The Pistons, now 3-11, wound up losing 97-80 as Houston scored 19 points off of 20 turnovers and pounded the Pistons for 21 second-chance points thanks to 17 offensive rebounds.

Before the game, Lawrence Frank talked about the need to do three things well: defend, rebound and keep turnovers to a minimum.

“We did parts of those,” he said, “and I wouldn’t necessarily say it was an effort thing, because we had probably three or four times where we deflected it and they came up with it. But to win, whether on the road or at home, those 50-50 balls, those second shots and protecting the ball are essential.”

Frank changed the starting lineup, moving Ben Wallace in at power forward and bringing Jonas Jerebko off of the bench. It was done, Frank said, with both the upcoming schedule – heavy with post scorers – and the need to better balance the units in mind. Houston’s Luis Scola has bedeviled the Pistons in recent seasons, but thanks mostly to Wallace the Pistons kept him in check. Scola finished with 14 points and five rebounds. But Samuel Dalembert, not usually an offensive force, gave the Rockets 14 points and 12 boards and was primarily responsible for Monroe’s struggles.

“You have to give Dalembert credit,” Frank said. “I’ve known Sam a long time. It takes guys a little bit to figure him out. Not that once you have him figured out, it’s easy; it’s not. This is Greg’s second year and these are good challenges. The other challenge is, when you’re not scoring, impacting the game in other ways.”

Monroe finished with four points, but did grab 11 rebounds and led the Pistons with six assists. Yet the “pace” that Frank has lauded in Monroe throughout the early season was missing, Monroe admitted. He had the ball swatted at a few times early as he made moves to the basket and never seemed to have much space to operate when he got the ball. It appeared he got frustrated at calls that never came.

“He definitely played me real well,” Monroe said of Dalembert. “I couldn’t find a rhythm. He played me well one on one and whenever I drove to the goal, they had a lot of help. They drew up a scheme and it did affect me a lot today. He just kind of kept me off balance. They were bringing the help side a lot. Once you get out of rhythm, it’s kind of hard to get it back in the middle of the game. I had a bad game and they did a good job on defense.”

Without Monroe’s scoring punch, the onus was put on Pistons perimeter players to score. Tayshaun Prince scored 20 for a second straight game, his season high. And Gordon, Rodney Stuckey and Brandon Knight combined for 49 backcourt points. But with Wallace and Jason Maxiell both scoreless, the only frontcourt scoring other than Monroe’s four were the seven points Jerebko managed.

“We cut it, then we had those two turnovers,” Frank said. “For all intents and purposes, that was basically all she wrote. From an effort, energy, intensity, focus standpoint, I thought we were where we need to be. If we can get that sort of effort and energy from the 36 to the 48 and then focus on cleaning up the execution, then we will get better.”