Downed By Denver

TEAM COLORS

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

White Hot – The Pistons, despite playing their NBA-high 24th game of the season to punctuate a stretch in which they’ve played six games in nine nights and four in the last five, got off to a scintillating start, leading Denver 21-4 less than seven minutes into the game. Fourteen minutes later, the game was tied. By halftime, Denver was up by six points and the Pistons never got closer than two after that, trailing 76-74 in the fourth quarter before losing 101-94. Rodney Stuckey kept the Pistons in it by scoring all 17 of his points after halftime, but the Pistons managed to get just two other players into double figures. Brandon Knight led them with 20 and Jason Maxiell added 18.

BLUE COLLAR – There was a time in his career when Jason Maxiell might not have had much in the tank playing his fourth game in five nights. But he was perpetual motion against Denver, his energy standing out even though his matchup came against one of the NBA’s most indefatigable competitors, Kenneth Faried. Maxiell matched his career high of six blocked shots – in the first half alone – and finished with six boards and a steal as well to go along with his 18 points and those half-dozen blocks.

RED FLAG – Greg Monroe got off to a strong start on the boards and with deft passing that produced two early Jason Maxiell dunks. He was sent to the foul line twice and came away 4-for-4 in the opening minutes. But he missed his first seven shots, many of them around the rim, and only got to the foul line ONCE more for the night despite encountering heavy defensive jostling that could have resulted in several more fouls. It resulted in a performance ending with the promise from the early going left unfulfilled as Monroe finished with six points, 12 boards and three assists. The foul count ended 28-19 in Denver’s favor, a factor that bubbled over into Pistons frustration as the game wore on.

Four games in five nights? No problem. For half a quarter, at least.

The Pistons have played 24 games, two more than anybody else in the NBA, and the buzzsaw of their most recent stretch – not just four games in five nights, but five in seven and six in nine – overwhelmed them after they sprinted to a 21-4 start in the game’s first seven minutes Tuesday before losing 101-94 to Denver.

Their fatigue was at least as much mental as physical, from all appearances. For every jump shot that barely grazed the front rim during a game the Pistons struggled to get their accuracy up to 42 percent, there was a gaffe that allowed a JaVale McGee lob dunk over their heads or confusion on pick-and-roll coverages.

Example: midway through the fourth quarter, Brandon Knight leaves Gallinari – a deadly shooter in the throes of his own errant night – open from 22 feet, expecting Jason Maxiell to recover to him after an improvised pick-and-roll play executed by Ty Lawson.

Gallinari drained it, putting the Pistons nine points behind.

“It created some confusion for both Brandon and Max,” Lawrence Frank said. “What happened to us, and you really saw it in the second quarter, we started to lose our voices. We just weren’t talking as much as we needed to there.”

So whether it was lost legs or lost voices, it added up to the second consecutive home loss in which the Pistons ran up a 17-point first-half lead and lost by seven points.

“I know guys are tired, but you’ve got to stay professional and come ready to play,” said Corey Maggette, with 13 seasons already in the books. “Our guys really do a great job of trying to come ready to play.”

The Pistons have lost a number of games this season after taking double-digit leads, which doesn’t make them especially unique in a league where games often swing dramatically from one side to the other. The risk of repeated collapses damaging the psyche, though, would appear greater to a team as heavily reliant on young players as the Pistons are.

The fact the leads have disappeared due to a multitude of factors is both good news and bad. There isn’t one glaring area of weakness to address, necessarily, but breakdowns that seem to build on one another. And if there’s a common theme, it’s that as soon as momentum stops pushing the Pistons forward, they go in reverse at dizzying speeds.

Or, as Maggette put it, “two or three mistakes can cause a lifetime of heartaches with this team. We just need to get better at it.”

Frank talked before the game about how the Pistons played relatively few “moment of truth games” as he calls them – games that at the six-minute mark are anyone’s for the taking – and that they’ve been in many more games this season, as reflected by their point differential of just minus-2.8 points per game. Learning how to win those games is almost never an overnight process. Frank pointed to the withering criticism the Miami Heat endured two seasons ago for their late-game failures despite the presence of three of the game’s brightest stars.

“If you allow it to become mental, yeah – if you allow it,” Frank said. “But if you continue to press on and grind and don’t have a self-fulfilling prophecy, it shouldn’t be a big issue. Either that or we ask the NBA to shorten games. There are no excuses. We’re not going to bring in Tony Robbins and wave some incense. These are grown men. We’ve just got to play better. I’m not here to look for excuses. We’ve got to play better. I’ve got to coach better. It’s that simple.”

Once Denver passed the Pistons by, leading by six at halftime, the game stayed within a narrow range. The Pistons fell 11 behind in the third quarter but got it back to six after three and pulled within two with more than seven minutes to play when Charlie Villaneuva made a terrific no-look pass to a cutting Kyle Singler for a layup.

But the whistles got to a strained team – fouls called on the Pistons, fouls not called on Denver, a 28-19 count that favored the Nuggets for the game – and frustration got the better of them at various points, visibly for Greg Monroe who endured a 1 of 9 shooting night despite drawing frequent contact on his attempts at the rim.

“It’s dealing with that frustration during the course of a game,” Frank said. “I thought our guys tried to grind, but at times we were a little bit frustrated. I don’t think it totally took advantage of us. We just had to deal with it throughout the course of the game.”

The schedule lightens for them now. Two days between games must seem awfully welcoming to them as the rest of the league catches up to their pace.

“It’s been a tough stretch,” said Singler, a rookie learning the rigors of the NBA despite the vast experience four years at Duke and another in the Spanish pro league provided. “I didn’t really see tired legs. It was more of a mental game for us tonight. It can be very frustrating. I thought we came out and played very well, but you’ve got to play all four quarters.”