Given how this season began for them – four wins in their first 24 games, with 20-point losses not out of the ordinary – it’s telling that the Pistons’ anguish over losing three of four games on their current Western Conference road swing is genuine. They really believe they should be 4-0.
They were tied at Utah with 5:14 remaining in the first game of the trip, but were outscored 18-3 down the stretch. After a convincing win at Sacramento, where they spotted the Kings a 15-point lead but won by 12, the Pistons were tied with Phoenix with 4:39 to go but were outscored 14-6. Then on Sunday, the Pistons led the Clippers by nine points with seven minutes to go in regulation but lost in overtime.
“We get to the moment of truth and some similar things, we just have to get better at,” Lawrence Frank said. “We’re putting ourselves in these positions. The next step is we just have to learn how to finish games.”
It won’t help their frame of mind much in the present, but history suggests these tough losses need to be absorbed before that next step can be taken. Before you learn how to win close games, to put it another way, you’ve got to experience losing them for a period of time. It happened that way with the Bad Boys and with the Goin’ to Work Pistons before they blossomed into bona fide title contenders.
“Everybody feels we should have won this game,” Greg Monroe said after Sunday’s loss. “We came out and played hard for four quarters – just a couple of loose balls, a couple of missed assignments, missed blockouts. That was the difference in the game. … We’ve been playing good basketball for 3½ quarters and we lose a little bit of focus coming down the stretch. We just have to find ways to games.”
The standings don’t come with an asterisk to reflect close losses, of course, but close losses provide teaching moments that the lopsided defeats the Pistons were absorbing in January never could. The Pistons haven’t come away with wins in three of the four games on this trip – it wraps up Wednesday night in Denver, though only a Friday night game with Miami at The Palace stands between them and another four-game road trip – but they have come away with the experience of competing in what Frank calls the “moment of truth.”
“You’ve just got to continue to learn, grow and move on,” he said. “It’s frustrating and painful to get to the moment of truth and not win the game, but that’s also part of the painful process of learning how to win on the road. It’s not supposed to be easy. Collectively, we’ll figure it out and do better.”
Part of the learning process for the Pistons, as Frank alluded to after Sunday’s loss, is figuring out who is best equipped to carry the load for them in those moments of truth. With his dynamic recent play, Rodney Stuckey is making the case for having the ball in his hands. Greg Monroe emerged as their go-to scorer against the Clippers and, at 21, it figures that he’ll become more comfortable and efficient in that role over time. Brandon Knight came to the Pistons with a legacy of late-game heroics in his one season at Kentucky and, before that, as a Florida high school legend. And Tayshaun Prince, for his scoring versatility and vision as a passer, remains a reliable standby option.
There was a time, when the games were stacked one atop the other and the schedule allowed for precious little practice time, when it seemed unlikely the Pistons would be consistently in position to win games, home or away, against playoff-quality opponents, at any point this season. They’ve taken that step, and it’s a big one. The next one is at least that big.