Pulling One Out
Maxiell’s big night, Prince’s big basket lead to 1-point win over Hawks
On the night Charlie Villanueva returned to uniform for the first time in two months, Jason Maxiell made his return to the rotation unnecessary.
Maxiell scored 19 points and grabbed 12 rebounds – his second straight double-double – and the Pistons edged Atlanta 86-85 Friday at The Palace, making them 10-7 since Maxiell moved into the starting lineup on Feb. 1.
The Pistons are also 8-3 in their last 11 home games, a stretch that began after Atlanta beat them 107-101 in overtime on Jan. 27. Friday’s game looked eerily similar to that one, when the Hawks erased a six-point Pistons lead inside the final minute to force overtime. This time, the Pistons – after falling behind by 10 points in the first quarter – held a 12-point lead early in the fourth quarter but needed a Tayshaun Prince hoop with 24 seconds left and a final defensive stand to earn the win.
So a pretty good week so far at The Palace – an overtime win over the Lakers on Tuesday night and a one-point squeaker over another certain playoff team, the Hawks, on Friday.
“We’re learning how to fight through turbulence within a game,” Lawrence Frank said. “We talked about the seven or eight times we could have folded against the Lakers. Here, same thing. It could have been déjà vu all over again. And yet, we hung in there, showed some mental toughness and discipline with different guys stepping up. We’ve just got to keep on using these as building opportunities.”
Maxiell was terrific early, scoring 11 points and making all five of his shots in the first quarter when the Pistons could have been blown out. Atlanta made its first nine shots and led 15-5, but the Pistons managed to get back within three points by quarter’s end.
“Max was on fire today,” Jonas Jerebko said. “It was good to see. We’ve been seeing it in practice.”
Maxiell played 29 minutes and Jerebko made sure there was no dropoff in productivity at power forward when he sat, the second-year Swede giving the Pistons 10 points, two rebounds, a steal and an assist in 19 solid minutes. Between them, Maxiell and Jerebko made 14 of 18 shots.
“If there was an MVP of this game, it was Jason Maxiell,” Frank said. “Both Jason and Jonas combined did a great job. Max was super. The tandem of him and Jonas was great.”
Maxiell had a roof-raising play with 3:22 left and Atlanta on the come, a one-handed tip dunk off a Prince miss that put the Pistons ahead 84-80. But he did most of his damage with his mid-range jump shot from the elbow areas.
“It’s about attacking the glass. My eyes were closed on the dunk, as usual,” Maxiell grinned. Of his shooting, he said, “That’s something I worked on a lot during the summer. Myself and coach Roy (Rogers), we also work on it every day. It’s something I’ve got to be consistent with.”
As much as the Pistons could use the perimeter firepower and scoring versatility Villanueva offers, it’s going to be tough for him to crack the rotation as long as Maxiell keeps knocking down jump shots, playing physical defense and corralling offensive rebounds. Jerebko’s contagious hustle makes him another player Frank is unlikely to move aside.
Prince, who is the only player on the roster who both preceded Maxiell’s arrival in Detroit and has been here throughout his seven seasons, says the big difference in Maxiell this year is merely the opportunity for a consistent role.
“Energy, setting good screens, rolling to the rim, getting his hands on a lot of balls, especially offensive rebounds, trusting his jump shot from 15 to 17 feet – but that’s what happens when you get more playing time and you get playing time on a consistent basis,” Prince said. “You end up finding yourself in the offense at some point.”
Prince, who finished with 17 points, found himself in the fourth quarter, when he hit three big baskets after re-entering the game for the final 6:33. He scored on consecutive possessions with a jumper and a 3-pointer, the last basket giving the Pistons a nine-point cushion with 5:25 to play. But it was his 8-foot runner with 24 seconds left that put the Pistons ahead for good and prevented another devastating loss to the Hawks.
The last two possessions were wins for Frank, too, putting the Pistons in good position at both ends. The Prince play first had options for Rodney Stuckey and Greg Monroe (20 points, seven rebounds) but was designed to also result in a dribble handoff to Prince if Stuckey couldn’t turn the corner and – if Prince couldn’t probe an opening – finally for Ben Gordon. But Prince didn’t want to put Gordon, who’d just entered the game, in a tough spot and he felt he was in rhythm.
On the other end, Frank put Damien Wilkins in for Gordon so the Pistons would have more size on the perimeter and he anticipated the screen-and-roll action the Hawks ran with Jeff Teague and Joe Johnson. With Prince and Stuckey the primary defenders, it was an easy call to switch the play, leaving Stuckey to guard Johnson. Without the substitution, it would have resulted in Johnson mismatched against Gordon or Brandon Knight. Stuckey smothered Johnson, forcing a tough 24-footer that missed, and Josh Smith’s follow attempt came too late.
“We’re getting better and better as the season progresses,” Jerebko said. “Too bad we got off to that bad start. We’ve got to keep working hard and keep playing together.”