A Defensive 180

After a poor start, the Pistons' defense has gotten stronger as the still-young season has progressed.
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The Pistons, it seems, are inching closer to the “defense-first” mind-set Lawrence Frank preaches. Just don’t tell him that.

When I mentioned to Frank before Monday’s win over Cleveland that the Pistons had suddenly rocketed to No. 7 in the league in field-goal percentage defense, his head dropped and a grimace twisted his face. Uh-oh, don’t jinx it, he seemed to be saying.

Then the Pistons went out and held Cleveland to 32 of 95 shooting, a less-than-robust .337 accuracy mark, and when they woke up on Tuesday the Pistons had taken another leap forward. They’re now No. 3 in the NBA, behind only Indiana and Oklahoma City, and have held opponents to .428 shooting this season.

Since starting the season 0-8, the Pistons have held opponents to a mere .406 in going 6-5 in their last 11 games. That compares to .459 over those first eight games. The league average is .445. In those first eight games, Pistons opponents were above that figure five times. In the last 11, it’s happened only three times.

Over their last five games, Frank said, the Pistons are No. 1 in points per possession and defensive field-goal percentage.

“We’ve put ourselves in a position where we could have won any of those games,” he said after Tuesday’s practice. “During that same stretch, offensively we’re 23rd in points. It just goes to show you, if we’ll continue to commit and grind and work at it, what we’re capable of doing.”

The Pistons beat Cleveland by double digits on a night they made just 43 percent of their shots and a season-worst 22 percent (4 of 18) from the 3-point arc.

There was no eureka moment for the Pistons, no single incident or possession where the light bulb went on. Besides hard work and the familiarity that comes with repetition, there’s nothing magical about what they’re doing.

“We’re doing the right things – I’m not quite sure what they are,” Kyle Singler said, smiling as he said it. “You can break it down to little things. But the big thing is we’re just getting stops consistently and guys are putting forth a good amount of effort. In my opinion, we didn’t really change much. The lineups changed, but we just got more stops, plain and simple.”

The turnaround really started after the first six games, at which time the Pistons were allowing baskets at a .483 clip. In the loss at Houston to close out their six-game early-season road trip, the Rockets shot .402, and when the losing streak hit eight – the night Oklahoma City came from 11 down in the fourth quarter to win at The Palace – the Pistons held OKC to just .370 shooting.

So, to recap: In five of the first six games, Pistons opponents shot above the league average and twice made more than half their attempts. In the 13 games since, teams have shot above the league average only three times and not one team has even reached the average of .483 the Pistons surrendered in the first six games.

The component of their defense that needs the most attention? Finishing possessions with a defensive rebound.

“Without a doubt,” Frank said. “We’ve got to be able to finish our defense with a contest and a blockout. Some of that has to do with on-ball defense, as well. It’s an everyday emphasis that we have to get better at.”

Frank remains uneasy with success. Just as he says players have never arrived – that even the great ones, perhaps especially the great ones, keep striving to get better and to stay a step ahead of the field – he doesn’t put any faith in yesterday’s performance.

“We’re far from figuring it out,” he said. “We started seeing back in that initial game in Philly where we started to play defense and understanding it. We’ve had some hiccups, but it’s just understanding collectively what your formula is for winning. That is our formula.”