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.”