It was just a few days ago when Lawrence Frank, talking about the turnaround the Pistons had made since losing seven straight, declared that in basketball more than any sport things can go from good to bad and bad to good in a heartbeat.
He probably wouldn’t have minded having to wait a little while to be proven right.
The Pistons had everything on their side: momentum, home court and an opponent even more conditioned to losing than the Pistons were just a week or so ago, the 5-22 Washington Wizards, losers of two straight and seven of eight.
When they got the spark they had been awaiting all game – a heads-up Rodney Stuckey steal to stop a Washington fast-break layup, converted into a layup and free throw by Greg Monroe at the other end – to take a two-point lead with four minutes left in the third quarter, it looked like the Pistons’ winning streak would soon be at five.
And that’s when Washington went on a 22-2 run that defied logic and left the Pistons groping for answers.
“I think we went 5 for 30 once we took that lead,” Frank lamented. “From the beginning of the game, we didn’t have that same sort of effort and intensity that we had in some of these prior games. Even in the first half when it was tied, a little bit of fool’s gold. … Between turnovers, inability to get stops, protect our paint and make shots, we got what we deserved tonight.”
The Pistons had built their four-game winning streak on sound defense turning into transition opportunities and terrific ball movement when they had to settle for half-court scoring chances.
“They were missing,” Ben Gordon said. “It was evident, especially in the second half. The first half, we kind of hung around, but you could still tell that energy and that spark wasn’t there. And John Wall pretty much took over the game in the second half when he started driving the lane.”
Wall scored a mere nine points – all of them in the final three minutes of the third quarter, the game’s decisive interlude. He was reckless at times, contributing seven to Washington’s total of 21 turnovers. But he was also dynamic, racking up 15 assists and decisively winning the head-to-head battle with Pistons rookie Brandon Knight, who followed Wall to Kentucky by a year.
“John Wall did an excellent job of pushing the ball in the second half,” Stuckey said. “He got a couple of easy baskets, also throwing lobs to JaVale McGee. That was hurting us all night. We’ve just got to do a better job defensively.”
Stuckey and Gordon and every other Pistons guard who played had miserable shooting nights. Stuckey and Gordon were 2 of 9 and Knight 1 of 9. Walker Russell was 1 of 7 and Will Bynum – playing for the first time in more than four weeks – was 0 of 2 in nine minutes.
“I don’t think we had the same type of ball movement,” Frank said. “There wasn’t the same pop and the same rhythm or the same energy. Did we have some open shots? Yeah. Did we have some shots in the paint? Yes, we did. Because we missed them, did that deflate us a little bit? Probably. From the naked eye, we didn’t have that same sort of pop.”
“We knew we were out of rhythm, weren’t sharing the ball, pushing it,” Stuckey said. “Defensively, they were doing whatever they wanted. Just one of those nights.”
For all of Wall’s impact in the game’s critical stretch, Frank called McGee the game’s MVP. He finished with 22 points and 11 boards, but his defensive impact went well beyond the two credited blocks.
“He impacted the game on the defensive end,” Frank said. “At one point, I think we were 8 for 26 in the paint. He impacted the game tremendously. You’ve got to give him a lot of credit.”
On a night the Pistons shot 33 percent, the only staple of their offense was Greg Monroe, who scored 27 in just 33 minutes and knocked down all nine of his free throws. Only two other Pistons made it to double figures, Stuckey with 11 and Tayshaun Prince with 10.
“I think it was a matter of not converting on shots we normally make,” Gordon said. “We didn’t get enough transition points. We didn’t allow our defense to create offense like we’ve been doing. Nights like this, you’ve got to rely on defense to get yourself going when shots aren’t falling.
The good news? The Pistons, not so long ago on a seven-game losing streak, already know how fast things can go from bad to good.