Capital Rewards

Pistons’ grinding win reveals Frank’s mental toughness mantra taking hold

TEAM COLORS

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

– Rodney Stuckey looked like he’d been away for three weeks, not three games, as he struggled with touch and timing as the Pistons muddled through a first half in which they shot 28 percent. But Stuckey heated up after halftime, scoring 20 of his 24 points including a huge 3-point shot with 55 seconds left to give the Pistons a one-point lead and the game winner with 0.2 seconds left to break a 77-all tie. Greg Monroe added a tip-in between Stuckey’s baskets to put the Pistons ahead by one after a Nene basket returned the lead to Washington. Ben Wallace split a pair of free throws with 11 seconds left for a two-point lead, but Nene scored again to force the tie with five seconds to go. The Pistons, out of timeouts, inbounded to Stuckey, who drove left to right and dropped the game-winner from 20 feet.

BLUE COLLAR – On a night the Pistons appeared to be running in quicksand, Jonas Jerebko stood out for the pep in his step. Jerebko had five points and six rebounds at halftime, which led to Frank turning to him just three minutes in the second half after Washington opened with its 8-0 run. Jerebko finished with nine points and a season-best 12 rebounds and played the final 21 minutes of the game without rest.

RED FLAG – The Pistons had three more turnovers than made baskets in the first half, which makes it a wonder they trailed by only five. Four of their 13 turnovers were the result of charging calls, three of them on Rodney Stuckey, returning to the lineup for the first time in 10 days after missing three games with a left big toe injury. The good news there? Stuckey was at least attacking the paint, something he did with great hesitance before missing time due to the injury, and his aggressiveness began to pay dividends in the second half. Ben Gordon, who scored 45 points last week in Denver when he took Stuckey’s spot in the lineup and added 20 in his last game, reported a sore groin at halftime and did not re-enter the game.

WASHINGTON – A game that revealed plenty about Pistons shortcomings ultimately will be recalled for the resolve and the gravel in their guts that Lawrence Frank has implored them to cultivate. The Pistons had nothing going for them at Washington and yet, through sheer refusal to give up on the idea that they might win anyway, they won anyway.

“It was an ugly, grimy, grindy game,” Frank said after the Pistons won 79-77, trailing from the nine-minute mark of the second quarter until the final minute and by as many as 12 points in the fourth quarter on a night 12 seemed like 32. “The first half, the NBA called and they were about to throw us both out of the building. We found a way to win.”

And a pretty thrilling way. For a game that was as ugly as a bruise for most of the first 45 minutes, the final three were worthy of NBA Classics. Rodney Stuckey won it on a step-back 20-footer with 0.2 seconds left, going the length of the court after Nene tied it at 5.8 seconds with the Pistons out of timeouts.

“(Frank) told us what he wanted us to do if they scored – pretty much take the ball out and just spread the floor and let me go one on one,” Stuckey said. “And that’s what happened. I couldn’t get to the basket, so I just did a step-back and the shot went down. I knew I had the step-back. I wasn’t going to go in there and try to force anything.”

He did that in the first half and picked up three charging fouls, which typified the night. The Pistons had more turnovers than baskets at halftime and shot under 30 percent until well into the third quarter. As Stuckey gained momentum, returning to the lineup after missing three games with a painful big toe injury, so did the Pistons. Stuckey scored 20 of his 24 points after halftime and his 3-pointer with under a minute to go gave the Pistons their first lead since early in the second quarter.

There were three lead changes and a tie in that final minute, with Stuckey’s triple and Greg Monroe’s tip preceding Stuckey’s game winner.

“It takes courage to take the shot,” Frank said of Stuckey’s winner. “You’ve got to be that guy – and he was that guy. You’ve got to give him credit.”

Courage wasn’t the only quality of winners the Pistons displayed. It would have been easy to shrug their shoulders and write the game off as one of those nights, but they kept ignoring the evidence stacked against them – the ugly shooting numbers, the turnovers, the calls that led to Frank picking up a technical foul.

Frank ticked off the adversities: Ben Gordon played just six minutes before being pulled with a sore groin. Stuckey came out eight minutes into the game as Frank saw the need to let him catch his breath, a byproduct of the time off, and then sat again with the three early charging calls. Greg Monroe suffered through fouls and turnovers, five apiece, that limited him to 24 minutes.

“Nothing was going right,” Frank said. “And guys stepped up.”

When Washington opened the second half with an 8-0 run, Frank threw Jonas Jerebko off the bench on the hope that Jerebko – the one player in the first half who didn’t appear to be running in mud – would light the fuse. He finished with 12 boards. “Jonas had great energy,” Frank beamed.

Brandon Knight leaped over the bench and sent the Gatorade bucket flying, another tipping point in the comeback. “Brandon’s hustle play was a momentum-changing play,” Frank said. “That really pumped up our guys. There was a great spark that triggered just to see the fight he showed.”

And Ben Wallace, playing big second-half minutes as Monroe struggled, teamed with Knight for superb pick-and-roll defense against John Wall and Nene, speared a huge rebound in the final seconds and split a pair of free throws that prevented Nene’s last basket from putting the Pistons down by a point. “Ben amazes me,” Frank said. “The guy, at his age, to be able to play so hard every night. … I hope our young guys really appreciate what he does every day.”

The win snapped a five-game losing streak by the Pistons, the first three agonizing for their last-minute nature and the last two demoralizing for their one-sidedness. But rather than resign themselves to the inevitability of another loss when all signs pointed that way, the Pistons kept fighting.

“The mental toughness is here,” said Monroe, who managed a double-double (10 points, 10 boards) despite his struggles. “We have to continue to fight and make plays like we did coming down the stretch tonight.”

Even if Stuckey’s game-winner hadn’t fallen, it wouldn’t have reflected negatively on the larger theme of the season: Frank’s relentless quest to instill again in the Pistons the very qualities that defined the best in their history, the iron-fisted defense that results from iron-willed resolve.

“There’s a handful of games we lost in the last couple of minutes or so,” Stuckey said. “We haven’t been good on the road, but it’s a process. And this one feels good tonight.”