Downed at the Wire
As Lawrence Frank watched videotape until his eyeballs bled over the summer, both a luxury and a curse of the lockout, he wasn’t sure what he would get out of Austin Daye in all of the many nuanced categories a coach with Frank’s fanatical devotion to detail demands. But he was pretty certain that if Daye could get even passing grades in enough of them, he’d provide the Pistons with a unique and dangerous scoring weapon.
Those beliefs were affirmed for him in the preseason, when Daye led the Pistons in scoring at 18.5. Then the regular season started and Daye ran in mud for 18 games. He shot 26 percent. He made one 3-pointer in 17 tries. He fell out of the rotation, given a reprieve only by a rash of injuries.
Then when Tayshaun Prince was forced to miss Wednesday’s game with Miami due to a family concern, the door to opportunity was cracked a little wider for him.
Daye charged through, scoring a career-high 28 points and giving the Pistons the kind of effortless scoring they’ve lacked in a 4-15 start against a schedule dripping with playoff teams, and in doing so he lit the fuse for what turned out to be an electric night at The Palace – the kind of night Tom Gores envisioned when he bought the team and spoke of lifting Michigan’s collective spirit. The young Pistons – missing not only Prince, but Ben Gordon, Charlie Villanueva and Will Bynum, as well – couldn’t close the deal, coming from 10 behind in the fourth quarter to lead with under two minutes left before losing 101-98.
But … well, let Frank lend perspective.
“I thought our guys showed great fight, spirit and resolve,” he said. “There were plays to be made on both sides – we had some empty trips – but you’ve got to look throughout the course of the game. It’s disappointing to lose. There’s not a consolation prize. But the spirit, the fight, the heart being in the right place for the right reasons – if we can establish that as part of our DNA, you’ll put yourself in position to win a lot of games. It can’t just be because it’s Miami. There was great resolve. There were plays left to be made, but sometimes you have to look at the bigger picture.”
The bigger picture starts with their blossoming young core. Greg Monroe struggled to a two-point, two-rebound first quarter but finished with 20 and 10 plus three steals. Brandon Knight shouldered 41 minutes and showed flashes of brilliance, particularly in his growing confidence probing the paint, finishing with 17 points to go with five assists and four rebounds. Rodney Stuckey scored 15 points while taking only five shots, getting to the line 12 times and adding six assists and four boards before fouling out, a wrenching call that went against the Pistons with 3:08 to play. Jonas Jerebko battled with seven points and six boards and showed his mettle by draining a 3-pointer to break a 95-all tie with 1:33 left.
But the night belonged to Daye, whose bench scoring punch would inject a major jolt of offense into a team that entered the game last in scoring at 84.9 per game. He started the game much the way he’s begun so many others this year, missing a 3-pointer and then having a medium-range jumper rim out, more rotten luck. But late in the first quarter, he speared a contested offensive rebound and slipped a pass to Jerebko through traffic for a layup. They were precisely the types of little things Frank preaches for players struggling to score – find other ways to help your team win. So was that what drew Daye out of his funk?
“No, it was the three – I’m not even going to lie,” he laughed. “When I hit one, I started feeling good about myself. The play was big to Jonas, but to see the ball go in, it really helps your confidence. I think I did a good job of helping my teammates out. When they were able to draw two, knock down shots and then drove closeouts and make plays for my teammates.”
“You can’t say enough good things about Austin,” Frank said. “I wasn’t playing him – he was out of the rotation. Hopefully, this is a springboard type of opportunity for him.”
Monroe expects that’s exactly what it will be.
“That’s what he does,” he said. “We know what Austin is capable of. It’s good for someone to catch fire, because once someone like that gets a rhythm, they’re usually in a rhythm for a long time. I’m happy for him. The beginning of the year, that’s not him. Tonight was a big confidence builder for him. This might be the start of something good for him.”
It didn’t hurt Daye’s confidence any when Frank let him play the whole fourth quarter, most of it matched head-to-head with LeBron James. James finished with his typical level of production: 32 points, seven assists, six rebounds, with the officials putting him at the line eight times in the fourth quarter. But Daye, like Damien Wilkins before him, battled James hard on a night the Heat rode him for 42 minutes and put the ball in his hands exclusively in crunch time with Dwyane Wade missing the game with an ankle injury.
“That’s exactly what I wanted,” Daye said. “That’s exactly what I’m there to do. I’m here to help my team. If he feels I can be on LeBron at the end of games, I’m more than (willing) to take the challenge.”
It might have ended the way the crowd of 18,058 wanted if the Pistons had made just a few more plays – Knight missed two free throws with 1:26 left that would have put the Pistons up five, and Wilkins fumbled a ball out of bounds on their next possession – but the fire they showed against one of the NBA’s elite teams will serve them well if they can bottle it and carry it forward.
“That fight, that energy, that focus, that intensity – we have to bring that every night,” Monroe said. “We came up short tonight, but we had a chance. We have to play like this every night.”