Pistons Pull One Out

Stuckey, Knight star but pass praise to teammates after comeback win

TEAM COLORS

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

– Rodney Stuckey averaged 24 points, six assists and one turnover in the past two games, making 15 of 28 shots and knocking down 18 of 21 free throws. It’s a streak similar to how he closed 2010-11, when he averaged 25 points and nine assists while shooting 50 percent and getting to the foul line often over his final five games. Stuckey scored 16 points in the first quarter and made his first six shots of the game. He was again aggressive getting into the paint, getting into double digits for the third straight game in free throw attempts, hitting 11 of 12. He also had a spectacular block of 6-foot-11 Jason Thompson that led to a fast-break basket and drew a charge against Marcus Thornton, overlooked defensive plays on a night that was dominated by offense. Stuckey finished with a season-high 36 points, just four off his career best.

BLUE COLLAR – Brandon Knight started slow – mostly because Rodney Stuckey was pretty much the Pistons’ offense in the first quarter – but he finished fast. Knight, after a scoreless first quarter, recorded his second career double-double – and his first with points and assists – in finishing with 23 points and 10 feeds. He contributed to six points on back-to-back possessions that began with just over two minutes left, first nailing a triple from the left wing that put the Pistons ahead 105-104 and then driving and dishing to Stuckey in the corner for another triple that gave the Pistons their biggest lead to that point, four points, with 1:35 to play. After the Kings cut it back to two, Knight scored on the next possession on a tough driving layup.

RED FLAG – Transition defense was a big problem for the Pistons in the season’s first month, less so since then. But it ruptured in Friday’s win, especially in the first half. Turnovers got Sacramento’s running game going early, but it wasn’t just turnovers that made the Kings dangerous, as they scored off of missed shots, too. The Kings finished with 29 fast-break points, 25 of them in the first half, but even that was a modest accounting of the damage Sacramento did in transition. Only the prolific scoring of their backcourt gave the Pistons a chance to win on a night they had to come back twice from 11-point deficits and once from 13 down in the second half.

Rodney Stuckey scored 36 points but wanted to talk about Brandon Knight. Knight racked up a double-double without turning the ball over and made three consecutive huge plays in winning time but wanted to talk about Ben Wallace.

Winning, the Pistons have discovered, is so much more fun than losing.

Lawrence Frank talks of the Pistons becoming a defense-first team, but then there are nights like Friday when the game takes on a life of its own and if you don’t score in bunches you get left behind. He’d prefer to stick to the blueprint, but the biggest takeaway from Friday’s 114-108 win over Sacramento was the fact the Pistons trailed for 95 percent of the game and by double digits in three distinct junctures but never quit pushing forward.

“We continued to fight,” Frank said. “That’s an encouraging thing. We’re going to have to continue to raise our level of play on both ends, but from a standpoint of having resolve, we’re getting more and more along the lines of establishing that we’re not just going away. We’re going to just keep fighting.”

Stuckey scored a season-high 36, four off his career high, and he carried the Pistons early – 16 in the first quarter – when nobody else could muster anything offensively. Knight finished with 23 points and 10 assists, hitting a triple to put the Pistons ahead for good at 105-104. On the next trip, he found Stuckey in the corner for a triple and a four-point lead. After the Kings answered to cut it back to two points, a gorgeous Knight drive and twisting runner made it 110-106.

“Phenomenal player, man,” Stuckey said of his backcourt partner, with whom he clearly enjoys playing, especially for the way Knight enjoins him in playing at a higher tempo. “He’s only going to get better. I love playing with him. We’re going to have a lot of years together and we’re only going to get better. The kid can shoot the ball, he can pass the ball, as you see tonight. We’re just going to get better with each other.”

Knight credited the team’s two senior members, Ben Wallace and Tayshaun Prince, for enabling his late heroics.

“Everything came from working together as a team,” he said. “The first three I hit, Tayshaun found me. He made a great drive and found the open guy, made a great basketball play. The next play, (Wallace) set a great screen, so I was able to get an advantage, and Stuckey made a great shot. And the next play, (Wallace) set another great screen that got me open for that layup. It may look like one person is scoring, but for the guys in the locker room, they know where to give the thanks and a lot of it came from Ben Wallace setting those screens and getting us open.”

The Pistons are now 6-2 in their last eight games, clearly coalescing despite the ups and downs that will plague them in a lockout season where only recently have they been able to squeeze in a practice every week or so. As their postgame praise of the man in the next locker or across the room indicates, their camaraderie is growing as rapidly as their win total, which stood at four two weeks ago.

“Just to know that we fought as a team, we fought as a unit, we came together as one,” said Knight, who declined to wear the protective mask for his broken nose and said he “finally felt free.” “We had a lot of guys give great efforts, not just offensively but hustling, getting blocks, steals, that led to easy offense for other people.”

The Pistons gushed leaks in transition defense in the first half. The official count was 25 Sacramento fast-break points, but Frank had it at 30. In the second half, though, he had the Pistons winning that battle 19-4. It was two points saved in transition – a Stuckey blocked layup on 6-foot-11 Jason Thompson – that had Frank beaming most broadly.

“The block against Jason Thompson – sprinting back to break up a layup when they had a break that led to our transition: huge,” Frank said. “He’s been doing that for a little bit now. You may look and point at the last three games” – Stuckey has averaged 28 points and shot 32 free throws in that time – “but it’s gone beyond that. He’s playing major minutes and he’s playing both ends.”

“Tonight was Stuck’s night,” Knight said. “He could get to the basket at will, draw fouls; he carried us and did a great job of keeping us moving offensively. Not only that, but the blocked shot, the hustle plays he had, that changed the game for us.”

Stuckey carried the ball down to the goal line – with a lot of help, Tayshaun Prince’s 22-point, 10-rebound, five-assist night – but it was Knight who got to spike the ball. Again, Frank loved the unheralded play.

“I was really proud of him making that pass to Rodney,” Frank said. “That’s just the right play to make at the right time. Great screen by Ben Wallace to create separation and now you’ve got to make the right play.”

The Pistons didn’t make as many of them defensively as Frank might have liked, but the fact they made them when it counts was the takeaway on a night they took another step closer to being the team they all feel is within their grasp.