Hanging On

Pistons start strong, sputter, then come back to beat Bobcats

TEAM COLORS

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

– Lawrence Frank is gradually shifting gears, getting ready for the Oct. 31 season opener, paring down his rotation and beginning to run his starters for longer minutes. Brandon Knight also kicked it up a notch, playing with more assertiveness than in the first five preseason games, scoring nine early points and staking the Pistons to a 16-point lead over Charlotte after one quarter on Saturday night at The Palace. But the Bobcats kept clawing back, cutting the deficit to nine heading to the fourth quarter, and took a 76-75 lead with three minutes left before the Pistons prevailed 85-80. Knight made three tough driving shots in the first quarter, two end-to-end rushes and one a tough lefty scoop, and finished with 15 points, five rebounds and two assists. Rodney Stuckey knocked down three first-half triples and one big one in the final minute, leading the Pistons with 16 points.

BLUE COLLAR – The calf injury suffered by Corey Maggette in Miami opened the door for Kyle Singler and Singler charged through it on Saturday. Living up to his reputation for making the right play and doing a little of everything, Singler appears to have emerged as the perimeter rookie – ahead of Kim English and Khris Middleton – with a shot to earn regular minutes. With Charlotte rallying in the fourth quarter, Singler recorded first a deflection and then a steal on the same Charlotte possession, then led a fast break and hit a streaking Jonas Jerebko, who drew a foul and earned two free throws. On the next possession, he prevented a Charlotte layup with his second blocked shot of the night. Singler appears to be an aggressive, willing and heady defender, always a good recipe for a rookie looking to claim minutes. He finished with four points, five boards, three assists, two blocks and a steal.

RED FLAG – Charlie Villanueva was having a miserable preseason coming into Saturday’s game, shooting 7 of 32 overall and 1 of 14 from the 3-point line. Lawrence Frank gave him one more chance to prove he belongs in the rotation, but Villanueva’s jump shot – his calling card – continued to betray him. Villanueva missed all five shots he took, two from the 3-point line, in the final nine minutes of the game. He had one bright moment, though. After his final miss, Villanueva hustled down the loose ball to save the possession. It ended with Stuckey’s triple with 30 seconds left to give the Pistons a four-point lead.

When the Pistons shot 19 percent and trailed by 16 after one quarter in what would become a 27-point loss at Miami, Lawrence Frank hoped it would impart a lesson on the merits of effort and aggression to the Pistons.

It did … for one quarter. The Pistons smacked around Charlotte at The Palace on Saturday night the way they were manhandled by the Heat 48 hours earlier, leading by 16 and holding Charlotte to 22 percent shooting.

They just didn’t maintain their chokehold for 48 minutes, as Miami had done to them. Charlotte came back to get within nine points after three quarters and kept clawing, taking a one-point lead with three minutes left on a 3-pointer by ex-Piston Ben Gordon. The Pistons then closed on a 10-4 run, giving Frank something to trumpet to his players: They at least stayed poised when things looked their bleakest.

Rodney Stuckey got the lead right back with two free throws, Greg Monroe converted a reverse layup on a tough drive through traffic and Stuckey drained a clutch triple with 30 seconds left to put the Pistons ahead by four. Defensively, the Pistons allowed Charlotte to score only twice in its last seven possessions.

“Instead of being flustered, we stayed the course,” Frank said. “Greg getting the big bucket, getting a couple of big stops, Rodney with the three. There were teaching points. We have a lot of work to do, but it was good to be in a close game because there were a lot of different situations.”

“We know we kind of dropped the energy and the focus,” Monroe said. “We want to correct that. We don’t want to be a team that slips. We still have a couple of things to work on.”

Frank’s script called for something closer to regular-season minutes for his starters with only two more preseason games remaining before the Oct. 31 opener. Monroe, Stuckey and Brandon Knight all played 30-plus minutes and Tayshaun Prince played 28. Those four were on the floor down the stretch along with Charlie Villanueva, who played the final nine minutes only and continued to struggle with his shot, going 0 for 5.

Stuckey finished with 16 points, making four 3-pointers on a night he was just 5 of 17 and managed to swallow frustration over not getting a handful of calls on drives that resulted in contact. Knight and Monroe added 15 apiece.

“He told us from jump to be prepared to play more minutes,” Monroe said. “I knew I was going back in. It felt good, especially in a situation like that. That’s something we have to work on, finishing tight games like that.”

Corey Maggette, due for an MRI next week to determine the extent of his calf strain, was replaced in the rotation by Kyle Singler. Frank said the staff is deciding whether they’ll employ a three- or four-guard rotation that might or might not include rookie Kim English. Toward that end, he again took a look at the merits of a Knight-Will Bynum backcourt pairing.

“The speed of the game changes instantly,” Bynum said. “As we continue to play more and more together, we’re going to get better and better, defensively and offensively, because we understand our quickness is our advantage.”

Singler certainly helped his case to be in the rotation with 20 high-energy minutes. He finished with four points, but his impact was felt across the board. He chipped in with five rebounds, three assists, two blocked shots and an assist.

Andre Drummond also played well again, giving the Pistons eight points and seven rebounds.

The Pistons, now 3-3, next play at Winnipeg, Manitoba, on Wednesday night against Minnesota before winding up preseason at home on Friday against Atlanta.