No Knockout Punch

Missing Stuckey, Pistons can’t score enough to keep up with red-hot Clippers

TEAM COLORS

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

White Hot – The Clippers didn’t quite play to the level of the league’s hottest team, sporting not just a nine-game winning streak – including the last three on the road – but an average winning margin of a whopping 15 points in those games. Their lead was in low single digits for much of the game – the Pistons trailed by two at halftime and three going into the fourth quarter – but an offensive drought to start the fourth quarter for the second straight game complicated a Pistons comeback attempt. The Clippers led by 11 with under seven minutes to go when the Pistons got it back to six points on two occasions, but they pulled away in the last minute for an 88-76 win as the Pistons lost their fifth straight game. Blake Griffin and Jamal Crawford scored 15 apiece to lead the Clippers, while Brandon Knight scored 16 and Tayshaun Prince 15 for the Pistons.

BLUE COLLAR – With Rodney Stuckey out due to back spasms that made him a game-time decision, the onus was on the remaining perimeter players to pick up the heavy minutes Stuckey had recently been assigned. Kyle Singler logged 39 minutes, Brandon Knight 36 despite early foul trouble and Tayshaun Prince 37. Will Bynum was the first guard off the bench, assuming Stuckey’s role, while Austin Daye replaced Corey Maggette in the rotation as Prince’s backup. The Pistons missed Stuckey’s bench scoring punch, though, as the Clippers outscored the Pistons 37-21 in the battle of the benches.

RED FLAG – The Pistons knew coming into the game they would have to take care of the basketball to give themselves a shot to beat the red-hot Clippers. And they did so in the first half, committing just six turnovers that Los Angeles converted into seven points. But in the opening minutes of the third quarter, the Clippers took their lead from two to 10 on the strength of forcing three early Pistons turnovers that they converted into easy points on each occasion. Two of their second-half turnovers came when they failed to inbound the ball in five seconds. The Pistons finished with 17 turnovers – slightly under the Clippers’ average of 17.4 – that Los Angeles converted into 25 points.

The Pistons knew the storm was coming. They packed sandbags along the river, sealed up their windows and took to high ground. But there’s only so much practical preparation possible. When the dam blows, things get wet.

For one half, the Pistons took meticulous care of the basketball against the team that creates more havoc than any in the NBA. The Los Angeles Clippers came to The Palace with a nine-game winning streak in which they’d blown out many teams in the first quarter and won going away. But they led by just two points at halftime, in large measure because the Pistons were on pace to commit just 12 turnovers for the game – more than five below par for a Los Angeles thievery unit spearheaded by All-Star Chris Paul.

Eleven seconds into the third quarter, the Pistons coughed it up a seventh time, immediately converted in to a Willie Green dunk. As foreshadowing goes, that was an ominous sign. The Clippers forced 11 second-half turnovers and, more grievously, converted them into 18 points. On a night the Pistons were struggling for scoring, especially from a bench missing Rodney Stuckey due to back spasms, the 25 points the Clippers scored off turnovers were 28 percent of their total in an 88-76 win.

“We played a good first half,” said Tayshaun Prince after the Pistons lost their fifth straight to tumble to 7-20. “Beginning of the third quarter, once we started to turn it over a few times, let them get out, that’s to their advantage. We’ve just got to take care of the basketball. When they shoot high-percentage shots, we know what type of team they can be.”

“We talked about their ability to turn you over and you’ve got to take care of it,” Lawrence Frank said. “They force turnovers that lead to dunks and it’s hard to defend them. Many times, that turnover is the first pass of their fast break.”

The game never really got away from the Pistons. Though the Clippers used that early second-half rash of turnovers to take a 10-point lead less than four minutes into the third quarter, the Pistons scratched back within three headed to the fourth quarter.

But with Stuckey missing, the bench couldn’t generate nearly enough offense to put heat on the Clippers in a fourth quarter that saw them stretch the lead to 11 before the Pistons got it back to six – but no lower. It wasn’t because the Clippers were scoring at will; it was because the Pistons managed just two baskets, both from Will Bynum, in their first nine possessions covering nearly the first six minutes of the quarter.

“We know the fourth quarter is played completely different,” Frank said. “This is a playoff team now and they get it. It’s played harder, tougher, more intense and smarter. We had enough to win tonight. Rodney’s a very good player, but they’re without (Chauncey) Billups and Grant Hill and I haven’t heard them complain about it once and they’ve won 10 in a row. That’s when we have to be more precise and more disciplined, especially when you’re going against more pressure.”

Bynum moved into the role of first guard off the bench that was Stuckey’s and had six points and two assists, plus four of the 17 turnovers, in his 15 minutes. The other change to the rotation could be more lasting. Corey Maggette, who has been Prince’s backup at small forward since returning from a calf injury on Nov. 14, did not play. Austin Daye took his spot and scored two points in 18 minutes.

“It was tough not having Stuck in the rotation,” said Andre Drummond, who has been entering games along with Stuckey in the first and third quarters recently after his seven-point, six-rebound, three-block performance. “A lot of different guys had to play, but Austin stepped up, Willie B stepped up and they played great. But they ended up getting the best of us at the end of the game.”

The Clippers, even without ex-Pistons Billups and Hill, have one of the league’s most productive benches and they outscored the Pistons’ reserves 37-21 and outrebounded them 18-10.

“It happens,” Prince said. “Some nights they carry us and sometimes we carry them. But at the end of the day, when Stuckey is not out there, we’ve got to have other guys pick it up. Willy B came in and responded well, made some plays for us, made some aggressive defensive plays. He was ready for the challenge. Austin hit his first shot. Those guys were ready for it. The key for everybody is to sustain it and we didn’t do that.”

Frank said Daye would continue to occupy a spot in the rotation until he gets a chance to settle in and he lauded his approach during the season’s first 26 games when he was on the outside looking in.

“He’s been an unbelievable professional this year,” Frank said. “Not being in the rotation, not getting an opportunity and every day being the same guy. I’ve seen really good growth from him and he’s become a professional player. He’s always had skills, but it’s the makeup. A lot of guys are for the team when it’s going well for them. It’s when it’s not going well for them or not getting a chance. Can you be for the team? That’s what a professional player does.”

The Pistons, similarly, have to dust themselves off and keep their focus locked on the road ahead, not the littered path they’ve traveled to get to 7-20.

“It’s tough to swallow,” Prince said. “You want to improve and show it in the left column, but it’s not showing. We’ve got to do something about it. It’s tough, but we’ve got to get through it.”