Hot in Cleveland
CLEVELAND – It’s not a strategy that can sustain itself for long, but the Pistons lost another guard and won another game Wednesday, the second straight time that storyline has developed amid their endless March road trip.
Two nights after Ben Gordon hobbled to the bench early with a groin injury in a win at Washington, the Pistons overcame the first-quarter loss of Rodney Stuckey to an angry hamstring in an 87-75 win at Cleveland.
Consider the evolution of the Pistons’ offense this season, which grew increasingly reliant on Stuckey’s scoring and ability to attack the paint until losing him to a toe injury 10 days ago. In his stead, Gordon averaged 25 points in three games.
So where do the Pistons, a team that has struggled for offense at times even with a full cast, turn for scoring without both combustible guards?
In Cleveland, they put the ball first in Tayshaun Prince’s hands. He responded with a season-best tying 29 points, including 13 in the second quarter when he drained three 3-pointers as the Pistons took a lead they never lost.
“He has great understanding,” Lawrence Frank said of Prince. “Tay really sees and feels the game. I thought he was huge. Tay really played a great all-around game. He rebounded the ball, he was a presence in the paint. You need that veteran presence on the road, especially when you’re shorthanded, and I thought he was a real calming presence out there.”
But it was an ensemble production that reached into the depths of Frank’s bench, most notably producing a major role for Austin Daye. Without either Stuckey or Gordon, Daye wound up starting the second half, logging 29 minutes and scoring eight points. Frank liked what he saw, even citing Daye’s defense. Daye, for his part, said the positive feedback he heard from the bench bolstered his confidence, lack of which has appeared to be at the root of his uneven season.
“When I can hear positive things from the bench, it really gives me a lot of confidence,” he said. “Being in the right spots defensively, it helps me out – just all of those things.”
“I thought he played very well,” Frank said. “He had a good offensive game as well, but I thought his length was a factor (defensively). “Austin continues to work and it’s always good to see, when guys have success who haven’t been playing and they start to have good moments, you feel good for them.”
Prince hit two big fourth-quarter jumpers after the Cavs had whacked a 15-point deficit to five, but the biggest shot belonged to rookie Brandon Knight, who finished with 16 points, five assists and four boards. His triple with 3:04 to play pushed the Pistons’ lead to eight and seemed to finally suck the life out of the Cleveland crowd.
“We know guys have got to step up,” Knight said of the effects of the depleted backcourt. “Offensively, we had a lot of guys step up. Even though that shot went in, we wanted to make sure we continued to get stops. That’s what really helped us win the game – getting those stops at the end of the game.”
If they had been a pitching staff, Prince would have gotten the win, Daye and Knight and a handful of others a hold, but the save would have gone to Jason Maxiell. With Jonas Jerebko picking up three quick fouls, Maxiell played 33 minutes and provided 12 points, nine boards and three blocked shots, his presence every bit that menacing. And if Knight’s triple didn’t seal the deal, then Maxiell’s put-back dunk a minute later surely did.
“Max was great,” Frank said. “Max took two, really three, charges – huge. We were holding on there. We were struggling to score, getting a little stagnant. Max getting that tip-in dunk, Brandon hitting that three – those are plays that put you over the top. I thought Max played a great game.”
Ben Wallace added four blocks, part of the collective effort, the grit the Pistons had to muster on a night they lost another guard and won another game.
“We have other players on the team,” Maxiell said, brushing aside the hardships of losing Stuckey on top of Gordon. “Other great players. Tay took over tonight, stepped up, and off the bench we had Will (Bynum, eight points, including a spectacular baseline drive and dunk, in 20 minutes) and Austin also step up.”
They’ll need that and more in the next stop – Chicago, the last of a stretch that sees the Pistons play in all four time zones inside of two weeks and in 10 different areas in their last 10 games.
“It does carry over,” Maxiell said of the momentum gained with their last-second road win Monday at Washington spilling over into Wednesday at Cleveland, “and hopefully it keeps on continuing in Chicago.”