Beat by the Heat

Pistons fall 26 down as turnovers fuel Miami’s offense

TEAM COLORS

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

– The Pistons got a full dose of Miami’s big three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh as the 35-11 Heat made a compelling case that they’re the team to beat in the East this season with a thorough 88-73 win over the road-weary Pistons. James, Wade and Bosh combined for 56 points, doing all the damage they needed to by halftime – when they’d combined for 33 – as Miami built a 23-point cushion. The Heat’s lead grew to 26 before a 9-0 Pistons run in the third quarter spurred a comeback that saw them close to within nine with nine minutes left in the fourth. The Pistons, who were home less than 48 hours before heading out on another weeklong road trip, played their second straight game minus Rodney Stuckey, though an MRI on his injured left big toe gave them optimism he would be able to return soon.

BLUE COLLAR – The Heat reached the NBA Finals last season even though they had committed the bulk of available cap space over the summer of 2010 to LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and didn’t have an adequate roster from four through 15. This year, using cap exemptions, they’ve added depth, their most recent pickup Ronny Turiaf. Oakland County native Shane Battier was the most important off-season acquisition and he played very well upon his return home. A superb perimeter defender who knocks down open 3-pointers – two critical elements for this team – Battier contributed all of his points and rebounds, nine and four, in the decisive first half.

RED FLAG – Back on Jan. 25, when the Pistons were in the final throes of their 4-20 start, they gave off signs that a turnaround was near by pushing Miami to the wire, leading in the final few minutes before losing by three points. Dwyane Wade wasn’t available for Miami that night, but the Pistons were shorthanded – minus Tayshaun Prince, Will Bynum and Ben Gordon – as well. So it registers as a disappointment that nearly two months later, two months in which the Pistons have nearly played .500 basketball, they would fall 26 points behind in the third quarter even on a night they had to play without Rodney Stuckey.

The Pistons returned home Thursday after an 11-day sojourn West to unseasonal March heat. Friday they came to The Palace after nearly two weeks away and were greeted by nearly unbeatable Miami Heat.

If they get run out of the playoffs this year, somebody’s going to have to play even better than Dallas did in winning last June’s NBA Finals. The Heat are a better bunch this time around – more cohesive with a full season under their belts, deeper off their bench and every bit as dripping with star power.

LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were as advertised in Friday’s 88-73 Heat win at the Palace – the one home game the Pistons have in a three-week stretch that sees them in strange beds 18 of 20 nights – as they combined for 56 points.

The Pistons made a game of it, rallying from 26 down midway through the third quarter to nine early in the fourth, sparked by a 9-0 run when it was 70-44. It marked the second straight game the Pistons came from way back – they trailed by 25 in Wednesday’s first half at Denver and led by three with 11 seconds left before losing – but coming back against a team with Miami’s firepower at both ends is hugely problematic.

“To give up 59 points in the first half – they were shooting in the 60 percent (range) – that’s not going to be a game we’re going to win,” Lawrence Frank said. “We had a hard time moving their hands. We tried to throw a lot of air passes through their high hands and they got steals or deflections, which obviously created a lot of offense in transition for them. The turnovers furled a lot of opportunities for them.”

James, Wade and Bosh combined for 33 first-half points as Miami built a 23-point lead, forcing 12 turnovers for 14 points in the half alone. James led Miami with four steals and Wade added three.

“I don’t know how many turnovers we had” – the right answer: 23 – “but we had way too many and gave them too many easy points in the first half,” said Jonas Jerebko, a part of the second unit that Frank credited with turning the game’s momentum with their energy and defensive intensity. “We threw the ball away way too much and they got easy buckets. If that was their defense or not, I think we were a little sloppy today.”

The Heat aren’t as thoroughly dependent on the big three this year. Rookie Norris Cole is a significant upgrade to the backcourt depth. Shane Battier, the former Michigan Mr. Basketball and Detroit Country Day, was the perfect off-season signing for his elite perimeter defense and spot-up 3-point stroke. And recent signee Ronny Turiaf, who made his Miami debut at The Palace with four points and four rebounds in a solid 11 minutes, gives Miami another big body up front with toughness and a skill set that complements defensive-minded Joel Anthony.

“I can see from watching them and playing against them that the focus on their team is better,” Damien Wilkins, another second-teamer who was instrumental in the comeback with nine points and four boards. “It’s not a circus surrounding them as much anymore. I think the distractions are cut down for them a lot. LeBron is playing arguably the best basketball of his career this year. You know what you are going to get from D-Wade and Chris Bosh every night and their supporting cast are veterans who’ve all won before. It looked like everyone else in the league was in the lockout and they weren’t.”

“Any time a team like that, that’s extremely talented and extremely well-coached, is together for time, they’re just going to continue to get better because they understand how to play off of each other and with each other,” Frank said. “They’ve been in different game situations, they understand time and score, when they have to crank it up a little bit. They’re obviously a high-level team, but that’s why we have to value the basketball.”

The Pistons struggled to score against Miami’s defense, perhaps the most unsung component of the Heat’s makeup. Led by the hyperathletic Wade and James, Miami thrives at forcing perimeter turnovers that quickly lead to transition opportunites. The Pistons coughed it up 19 times in the first three quarters alone and Miami converted those miscues into 23 points. The Pistons shot just 34 percent in the decisive first half, when they trailed by 23, and finished at 39 percent, while Miami finished at 44 percent nailing 64 percent in the first half – a trend that’s seen the Pistons fall behind in most recent games.

“It’s a recurring theme,” Frank said. “It’s something we’ve talked about with our group. If we’re going to become more consistent, it has to start with our defensive end. … The story to me, with that second unit, those guys really put a lot of sweat equity into the game and found a way to turn the game around.”

But not enough, not against a Miami team that figures to be playing deep into June.