Saturday Smackdown

Before they hit the road, Pistons rout Raptors for 3rd straight win

TEAM COLORS

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

– Brandon Knight was 2 for 11 in Pistons home wins over the Lakers and Hawks earlier this week, prompting the second round of questions this season about hitting the rookie wall. But 24 hours after he scored six points against Atlanta, Knight led the Pistons to their most dynamic quarter of the season, a 37-14 opening period against Toronto en route to a 105-86 Pistons win, their ninth in the last 12 games at The Palace. Knight scored 15 first-quarter points on 6 of 8 shooting and added four assists. Knight (19 points, seven assists) and backcourt partner Rodney Stuckey (20 points, eight assists) led the charge as all five Pistons starters were in double figures by the time the third quarter ended, when they led by 31 points – their largest of the season.

BLUE COLLAR – Damien Wilkins came to training camp on a non-guaranteed contract and had to earn a roster spot by proving he could play lock-down defense on the wing. Wilkins made the team, then worked his way into the rotation when Austin Daye’s struggles created an opening. Wilkins is going to be tough to move out of the backup spot behind Tayshaun Prince, not only playing the kind of reliable defense Frank demands but consistently making the right basketball play. Wilkins contributed eight points in 19 minutes.

RED FLAG – Nothing the Pistons can do about it, but the schedule now works against them. After a 4-20 start, they’ve righted the ship. Over their last 17 games, the Pistons are 11-6 and they’ve won nine of 12 at The Palace. But now they hit the road for a five-game trek west, the start of a stretch in which they play 13 of 17 away from home. They’ll be home less than 48 hours over the next 20 days.

The Pistons have to cram enough in their suitcases to carry them through an 11-day road trip that opens with a Monday date at longtime nemesis Utah, but they’d better save room for something they’ve managed to acquire over the last month: momentum.

The team that staggered to a 4-20 start is suddenly 15-26, winners of 11 of their last 17 games and nine of the last 12 at The Palace. They capped a 3-0 week that included exhilarating wins over two playoff teams, the Lakers and Hawks, by smacking the Toronto Raptors silly on Saturday night.

The Pistons average 89 points a game – they matched that in three quarters Saturday night, by which time all five starters already had landed in double figures and the lead was a season’s best 31. They settled for a 105-86 win that was over when the first quarter ended with the Pistons leading 37-14.

Anything not to like about the first quarter, Lawrence Frank?

“That it ended,” he cracked.

“Our guys came out with phenomenal intensity. Defense leading to transition opportunities. We put great effort into the game to set the tone. We were very good, start to finish.”

In Toronto’s locker room on the whiteboard that notes a team’s priorities for the game ahead, the first item was rebounding with special mention of Greg Monroe. The Raptors did OK on that score, limiting the Pistons to just one offensive rebound in the first half. Of course, they did allow the Pistons to shoot 61 percent and score a season’s high 61 points, so there weren’t a lot of offensive rebounds to corral.

It was when you got to No. 2 on Toronto’s priority list where things really unraveled: transition defense. The Pistons, a team only just learning to condition itself to run, led 20-2 in fast-break points at halftime.

“Defense – that’s all it was,” said Rodney Stuckey, who led the Pistons with 20 points and eight assists. “We just got stops and it led to easy baskets. We’ve been doing a good job of attacking lately, but we knew they didn’t really have any shot-blockers back there.”

Brandon Knight broke out of a mini-scoring slump by scoring 19, 15 in the first quarter when he hit three triples. Knight added seven assists, four in the opening quarter.

“Our backcourt – 39 points and 15 assists – did a phenomenal job setting the tone,” Frank said. “A lot of those are attacks, either in transition or our bigs setting great screens – we had a real good pick-and-roll game going. The ball was moving, but it all started with good defense.”

Knight, Stuckey and Tayshaun Prince – playing in his 700th career game, the sixth Piston to reach that milestone – accounted for 28 first-quarter points among them, 11 of those points coming in transition and the rest mostly on wide-open shots.

“We just wanted to make sure we came out and played with as much energy as we could,” Knight said. “The first game (at Toronto), we didn’t play with all the energy we could. This game, we wanted to make sure we really focused on that and make sure we laid it all out on the court and when the game was over, be able to say we played as hard as we could.”

The game was notable for the first appearance of Charlie Villanueva since Jan. 4 at Chicago. Villanueva played the final 3:20 and missed two jump shots. The Pistons could use the perimeter shooting Villaneuva offers, but to crack the rotation he’ll have to push aside either Jason Maxiell (12 points, seven rebounds) or Jonas Jerebko (13, six) and both are playing very well.

They’re also playing the type of hard-nosed defense that makes Frank’s pulse race. The Pistons held Toronto to under 40 percent after allowing the Lakers and Atlanta to land just north of there. It’s the formula Frank trusts and one he hopes will now translate to the road.

“We’ve shown we can win at home,” he said. “We’ve put together four in a now at home, nine of the last 12. Now we have a great opportunity to go on the road and see if we can build.”