Pistons Beat the Blazers

TEAM COLORS

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

– Rodney Stuckey sat out Friday night’s game – precautionary, the Pistons said, after missing four games earlier in the month. When Ben Gordon was a late scratch, bothered by a right shoulder injury that he aggravated in Friday’s loss to Memphis, Stuckey was elevated to the starting lineup. He started strong, converting a three-point play and knocking down a 3-pointer on his first two shots, and scored 16 points in what was likely the Pistons’ best offensive first half of the season. They scored 54 points, shot 54 percent and committed just four turnovers. Stuckey knocked down a couple of big 3-pointers as the Pistons stretched their lead to 16 midway through the second quarter and he led them with 28 points – including four free throws in the final 10 seconds – in their 94-91 win over Portland.

BLUE COLLAR – The absence of both Ben Gordon and Will Bynum due to injury limited Lawrence Frank’s scoring options when he went to the bench. The group he put on the floor to start the second quarter included Damien Wilkins, Walker Russell, Jonas Jerebko and Jason Maxiell to go with starter Tayshaun Prince, who came out midway through the first quarter in order to provide the second unit with another scorer. But the backups’ defense was what helped the Pistons seize control, going on a 12-2 run to open the quarter and hold Portland to 1 of 10 shooting. The Pistons led by as many as 13 in the quarter and took an 11-point lead to halftime. There was no bigger stretch in the game than that one.

RED FLAG – The Pistons held on to win, but they experienced another extended drought – the kind they seem to have one of in nearly ever game – and it came just when it looked like they had seized full control of the game. After a Rodney Stuckey 3-pointer with 7:13 left in the third quarter gave them a 16-point lead, their largest of the night, the Pistons scored only two points over the next six minutes, during which time Portland outscored them 16-2 to cut its deficit to two points. The Pistons never did give up the lead, but the game wasn’t won until Portland’s Raymond Felton dribbled the ball off his foot at mid-court with four seconds left and the Pistons ahead by three.

Some nights it’s been tough to tell what troubled the Pistons more: their offense or their defense. Usually overlooked in the debate was the relationship of one to the other.

When the Pistons turn the ball over – and they came into Saturday’s game with Portland last in the league in ball security – it cuts both ways, negating a scoring opportunity for them and often providing a transition chance for the opposition. When they give up baskets on too many possessions, they wind up taking the ball out of the net and then trying to penetrate a set defense.

The chicken-or-egg debate might not be conclusively settled, but the first half of Saturday night’s 94-91 win over Portland – a salve if there ever was one for a team that had lost four straight and needed some good news to grab on to – gave a pretty good clue: When the Pistons protect the ball, they’re going to give themselves a chance to win games.

They coughed it up just four times in the first half – they average more than twice that – and were rewarded with a 54-point outburst, their highest-scoring first half in the 17 they’ve played. They’ve crested 50 three times this season in first halves and won all of them in a 4-13 start.

“As long as we take care of it, we limit points in transition, which is something that’s kind of hurt us in past games,” rookie Brandon Knight said after committing just one turnover in 37 minutes on a night the Pistons got Rodney Stuckey back – he led them with 28 points – but lost Ben Gordon, a late scratch with a sore right shoulder that’s bothered him for some time. “When we take care of the ball, that’s definitely a plus for us.”

Even the four first-half turnovers were benign. Three of them were dead-ball turnovers – two charging calls, one traveling. The only one that didn’t result in a stoppage turned into a Portland layup.

“It’s not only cutting down our turnovers,” Lawrence Frank said. “But those dead-ball turnovers, at least they can’t do anything with those. It’s the turnovers that lead to their breaks that have been a problem for us.”

So taking care of the basketball was critical, but the game turned just as surely on the defense played by an unlikely five-man unit Frank sent out to start the second quarter: D-League signee Walker Russell, camp invitee Damien Wilkins, Jason Maxiell and Jonas Jerebko to go with Tayshaun Prince. Down 27-26 after one, that bunch played suffocating defense as the Pistons went on a 12-2 run – Portland shot 1 of 10 – and handed the starters an eight-point lead.

“We just shared the ball and played our game and played with a lot of energy,” Jerebko said after an 11-point, five-rebound night cut short in the fourth quarter when he took a Craig Smith shoulder to the mouth – splitting his lip and requiring two stitches – and, amazingly, resulted in a foul on Jerebko. (“Fouled him with my head, I guess. Fouled him with my lip. I don’t know what I did, but I guess it was a foul.) “We made some shots and just got on a little run. When we play together, we can beat every team and (when we don’t) we can lose to every team. We’ve just got to keep playing together. We rotated well, just kept playing to our principles.”

“They did a wonderful job,” said Greg Monroe, who wasn’t called on to score as much but put up 10 points and eight boards and came up with a huge strip of LaMarcus Aldridge with the Pistons up five and three minutes left. “There wasn’t an energy dropoff when they got into the game. They gave us a good spark and we were able to continue the momentum in that quarter.”

The Pistons had one other significant takeaway from the game. After letting a 16-point lead midway through the third quarter dwindle to two immediately via a 16-2 Portland run, they were able to regroup and hang on. Again, it was that second unit late in the third quarter that managed to stabilize things.

“That’s what we talked about in the locker room after the game,” Frank said. “I thought our guys showed great resolve. Think about the guys that were out there. You had Walker, Damien, Tay, Jonas and Jason Maxiell. Everyone who stepped on the floor did a great job, just really brought it. It was disappointing that the lead dwindled, but we knew they were going to make a run. Bend but don’t break. We weathered the storm, finished the quarter on a positive not and made enough plays to win the game.”

All because they held on to the ball long enough to be able to make those plays.