A Workmanlike Win

Without their A game, Pistons still have enough to top Wizards

TEAM COLORS

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

–The Pistons continued their march through the NBA’s Southeast Division, winning their third straight against one of its members by dumping Washington 99-94 at The Palace. The win was the fifth in the last six games for the Pistons, who are now 17-13 over their last 30 games. Washington led once – at 3-2 – but the Pistons didn’t really put the Wizards away until early in the fourth quarter. Rodney Stuckey returned from injury to score 15 points, 12 in an eight-minute span that bridged the third and fourth quarters. Greg Monroe scored 18 points despite not playing after the midway point of the third quarter and Tayshaun Prince (14), Ben Gordon (13) and Jason Maxiell (11) also scored in double figures.

BLUE COLLAR – Ben Wallace isn’t showing any signs of wear as the season winds down, a testament both to his amazing level of conditioning and the way Lawrence Frank has used him in his 16th NBA season. At 37, Wallace looked more energetic than players a decade and more younger than him again, grabbing eight rebounds in 27 minutes. Wallace played the game’s final 18 minutes without rest. He also foiled Randy Wittman’s hack-a-Ben strategy by making four straight free throws and 5 of 6 in the fourth quarter. In one brief sequence, Wallace forced a steal, ran from the baseline to near the free-throw line after an offensive rebound to earn the Pistons another possession and challenged speedy Wizards point guard John Wall at half-court to make him alter course. In the second half, Wallace met Wall at the rim and swatted away his layup attempt, then seconds later took a charge from Wall.

RED FLAG – With the Pistons starting a stretch of four games in five nights – and the next three of them against Eastern Conference teams with legitimate shots at home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs – an early night for the starters was the best medicine. But missed Pistons free throws early – they shot just 13 of 24 in the first half – was their first missed opportunity. The second came after they pushed their lead to 20 early in the fourth quarter, but they allowed Washington to cut it to under single digits with five minutes left to force Frank to bring back all of his starters except Greg Monroe.

When the Pistons were resolutely plowing their way to six straight Eastern Conference finals not so long ago, they would make winning comfortably, if not dominantly, on nights they didn’t have their A game routine. They won’t be going to the conference finals this season, and not likely to the playoffs at all, but they’re adopting some of the traits familiar to the fans who packed The Palace routinely all those years.

They should have beaten the Washington Wizards – a 12-win team missing frontcourt starters Nene and Trevor Booker – and so they did. They won by unanimous decision, if not by knockout, leading for the final 46 minutes. They missed 16 free throws, 11 in the first half alone, and didn’t make a 3-point shot until more than four minutes into the second half. They played about five great minutes of basketball, late in the third and into the fourth quarter, to build a 20-point lead and held it together when Washington tried to drag the game out well enough to claim the 99-94 win.

One more thing that recalls their salad days: It was the Pistons’ third straight win and their fifth in the last six games.

“We’re just showing we’re getting better and better,” Jonas Jerebko said. “Even when we don’t play at the top, we came out with a win here. The beginning of the season feels like that was two years ago.”

They had no margin for error in their 4-20 start, but the Pistons are 17-13 over their last 30 games. They’ve established an identity inching closer to the defense-first team Lawrence Frank insists upon and that, he said, was what won them another game Thursday.

“The group that changed the game for us was Ben Wallace, Jonas Jerebko, Damien Wilkins, Will Bynum and Rodney Stuckey,” he said. “We went up 20 with that group and it was because of their defensive energy. Then we rode it. … You look at the numbers – we shoot 52 percent. For us, that’s a pretty high-water mark, but the game changed defensively because of the impact of that group. That’s what we’re going to be. We’re going to be a defense-first team. We can live with a lot of other things, but we’ve just got to continue to grind and establish an identity.”

Maybe more than anything, win No. 21 of the Frank era will be recalled for the lasting legacy of Wallace. Frank put him into the game earlier than usual in the third quarter – before the six-minute mark, in fact – and never could bring himself to take him out. Greg Monroe had 18 points and seven boards at that point, then never saw the floor again.

“You get to a point of no return,” Frank said. “Either you fully commit – Greg’s drying up – but Body was playing so well. Reward the guys that are really rolling. Body did a tremendous job.”

Wallace has been adamant that this is his final season, but he’s certainly making it hard for the Pistons to let him walk away.

“It’s every single day,” Bynum said, shaking his head. “Ben is working non-stop, every day. He’s one of the first people in the gym and one of the last people to leave. I’m not surprised at all. His preparation is unbelievable.”

Wallace, in 27 minutes, gave the Pistons five points – he hit 5 of 6 free throws late to foil Washington’s hack-a-Ben strategy – and eight rebounds, plus three assists, two steals and a memorable blocked shot on John Wall. But his impact, as ever, went beyond the numbers.

“I’m about to retire but I ain’t going to quit,” Wallace said. “If there’s a game going on, I want to be in it. I’m going to ride this thing out. I want to be out there every minute I possibly can. I have no quit in me. Don’t confuse quitting with retirement.”

“Body is a total marvel,” Frank said. “It’s a true statement of professionalism. A competitor and someone who can still do it at a high level. I hope our guys soak up these lessons, because they’re invaluable. It’s not about talking, it’s about doing, and he’s the ultimate doer. He is a top-shelf competitor.”

Once Wallace helped the Pistons seal the lane – John Wall had 28 points and 10 assists for Washington, and Frank said he penetrated the paint 28 times – Rodney Stuckey helped turn the game on the other end. The Pistons got Stuckey back from a hamstring injury after missing a week and it went much like it did 10 days ago at Washington when he returned from a toe injury: slow start, fast finish. Washington was hanging around, within six late in the third quarter, when Stuckey scored three tough baskets at or near the rim. That gave them breathing room, a 12-point cushion, headed to the fourth quarter, when the Wallace-led defense got enough stops to essentially put the game away.

They missed too many free throws and 19 turnovers led to 21 Washington points, but the bottom line was the Pistons found a way to win without their A game – and that’s something they couldn’t have managed, or imagined even, not so long ago.

“How was it ugly?” Jerebko responded to a question about the aesthetic qualities of their victory. “I think we got some good stops and ran the floor. I call that winning basketball.”

Sounds like somebody’s soaking up some of Big Ben’s lessons.