Tough Way to Start

OKC star scores 37 in debut as Delfino's late triples sink Pistons

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

– Houston traded for James Harden – a deal that cost them two first-round picks, veteran scorer Kevin Martin and 2012 lottery pick Jeremy Lamb – and then signed him before tipoff to an $80 million, five-year contract. The Rockets might have gotten off cheap at both ends of that transaction. Harden was magnificent in leading Houston to a 105-96 season-opening win at The Palace, leading the Rockets back from 11 down in the fourth quarter with 37 points, 12 assists and six rebounds. The Pistons recovered from a slow start and outscored Houston 23-17 in the third quarter behind a balanced scoring attack, but ex-Piston Carlos Delfino’s four fourth-quarter triples and Harden’s overall brilliance couldn’t be overcome. It was a tough way to start the season – the Pistons now go on the road for six straight games.

BLUE COLLAR – When the Pistons were getting caught flat-footed and looking a little overwhelmed by the speed at which Houston was attacking them in the first half, it was Jason Maxiell whose effort sparked their competitive fire. Maxiell showed up on the score sheet – 10 points, eight rebounds, two blocked shots – but it really was the way his play said “enough, let’s fight back” that helped turn the game around when Houston had control and threatened to pull away. It’s that type of play that will make Maxiell hard to dislodge from the starting lineup.

RED FLAG – Houston controlled most of the first half by getting into Detroit’s lane far too often, at one point holding an 18-2 advantage over the Pistons on points in the paint. The Rockets racked up 34 such points in the first half before the Pistons tightened significantly, starting late in the second quarter and limiting Houston to four points in the paint in the third quarter. But then the Rockets found other ways to score, hitting five 3-point shots in the fourth quarter.

As good as James Harden was in his Houston debut - and, my, was he good - the Pistons had absorbed the bulk of his carnage and still had an 11-point lead to show for it early in the season opener's fourth quarter.

But the Rockets kept finding other ways to counter Detroit's defense - first slipping into their paint, then beating them back in transition, and finally launching a bombs-away assault from the 3-point line in a breathtakingly efficient offensive performance. And when the Rockets overcame the Pistons by outscoring them 33-15 in the fourth quarter for a 105-96 win, it was ex-Piston Carlos Delfino's four triples that carved the heart out of them.

"What did Carlos have? Three or four threes in the fourth?" Lawrence Frank asked when it was over. "There's always mistakes that are made, but they made us pay for mistakes by making shots. Harden, you can live with him going big because at one point Harden was going big and prior to (Jeremy) Lin hitting those two threes (early in the second half), they were 3 of 10 for threes. With that being said, the damage in the fourth quarter wasn't really precipitated by Harden as it was by others."

Harden still made an enormous late impact for Houston, dishing out five of his 12 assists in the fourth quarter. He finished with 37 points - three off his career best - to go with four steals and six rebounds, as well.

"We would have thought he would have had a tougher time trying to figure out their offense, but they stuck to a couple of plays the entire game," Tayshaun Prince said. "Their whole thing was trying to keep us spread out as much as possible. When we missed shots, they pushed the ball up and got easy opportunities. We know what type of player James Harden is. The more he has the ball in his hands, the (more) dangerous he is. It's going to make it even tougher being in Houston; he has the ball in his hands even more."

The Pistons had their own dazzling stretches, scoring 36 points in the second quarter when a bench unit that included standout performances from rookies Kim English and Kyle Singler made an impact, and holding Houston to 17 points and 30 percent shooting in the third quarter.

The fourth quarter unraveled at both ends, offensive stagnation leading to Houston scoring chances that allowed the Rockets to set their defense and make the Pistons attack in the half-court, where poor shooting from their backcourt - Rodney Stuckey (1 of 10) and Brandon Knight combined to go 6 of 25 - made it difficult to spread out Houston's defense.

"I just think we lost our pace," Frank said. "Getting into things later than we wanted, the ball sticking - we didn't change what we ran, but just our intent with it. Overdribbling, passing and standing, not probing and getting into that paint, playing around the paint. They were in our paint and we became very spread out."

The Pistons shot 35 percent in the fourth quarter and were outrebounded 13-3. The Rockets went small for much of the fourth, using Chandler Parsons at power forward and playing Harden, Lin and Delfino around the 3-point line. Frank eventually matched up with the smaller lineup, playing English along with Knight and Stuckey with Prince at power forward.

Frank used all five bench players - Jonas Jerebko, Will Bynum, Andre Drummond, English and Singler - for at least 13 minutes apiece. Singler scored 10 points with two rebounds, making consecutive 3-point baskets in the 36-point second quarter, while English hit a pair of threes in the second half and finished with eight points and three assists.

Until Delfino's late barrage, the Detroit bench held a 34-9 scoring advantage over Houston's. It ended 36-27. On nights the Pistons don't get bludgeoned by a 37-point star turn or sliced up by a 3-point explosion off the bench, they showed enough in the opener to send them on their six-game trip west encouraged. But the loss hung heavy in their postgame locker room and won't easily be dismissed.

"They started off the fourth real well," Prince said. "Delfino hit some big shots and from that point on we just couldn't regain control. A couple of bad turnovers here and there and the offense just kind of went south. It's something I talked about before: a young team, you have to play consistent basketball and if you don't, then this can happen. We've got a lot of work to do. We wish we could have gotten this game before we went on this road trip. It's just going to make it tougher for us."