Anybody who walked in at halftime and saw Monroe and Drummond for the first time in the final two quarters would wonder if the Pistons’ 16-25 record had been transposed and what two Eastern Conference big men would have to give up their spots in the All-Star game to make room for them.
After trading punches with Orlando in a first half played to the Magic’s liking, the Pistons played on their terms in the second half – which is to say they played to the strengths of Monroe and Drummond.
Monroe scored 10 points, grabbed four rebounds and dished two assists in a 28-14 third quarter that pushed the Pistons’ two-point halftime lead to 16 – enough so that Monroe and three other starters didn’t have to get back off the bench in the fourth quarter of their 105-90 win. Drummond ensured they would get all the rest they needed, recording eight points, 10 boards, two blocks and two steals in 17 second-half minutes in which his reach seemed to stretch from sideline to sideline.
That was the bonus to their second straight win and ninth in their last 13 games; headed to Chicago for a Wednesday game against a team that last played on Monday, beating the Lakers at home, only starting guards Brandon Knight and Kyle Singler played as many as 30 minutes.
“The start of the third quarter, we set the tone,” said Jason Maxiell, who kept the Pistons close during a first quarter in which Orlando sprinted to a 22-11 lead by scoring nine of his 11 points and pulling down eight of his 11 rebounds in the opening 12 minutes. “We got Greg going and he got rolling and passed it out and knocked down open shots. Once Greg got it going, we ride him for a minute, then Dre came in and set a tone, setting good screens and rolling to the rim strong and hard – easy buckets.”
Orlando hurt the Pistons from the two spots Lawrence Frank stresses the most in the first half: the paint and the 3-point line. The Magic scored 28 points inside and outside, making 6 of 10 triples if you omit Glen Davis’ errant launch to beat the halftime buzzer.
J.J. Redick was particularly troublesome for the Pistons. Thrown into the starting lineup as a wrinkle – he usually comes off the bench behind Arron Afflalo, who moved to small forward for this game – Redick sparked Orlando to the early 11-point lead and had 17 by halftime, perfect from the field in six tries and from the arc in four attempts.
“The third quarter was where it changed,” Frank said. “That first unit was locked in, holding them to 14 points. The denials, the ball pressures at the elbows. Greg was very, very good with defensive intensity. We have to play that way for 48 minutes. It’s a dangerous way any other way.
“(Monroe) was fired up. I never look at things from the offensive end. I look at things from the defensive end. Everyone needs to bring their maximum effort. We can’t let anyone or anything impact our effort on the defensive end. Greg did a great job of putting defense first in the third quarter and look what happened. Everything else opened up.”
If Drummond let the two quick fouls take him out of the game in the first half, Monroe appeared frustrated by a few non-calls he thought should have sent him to the free-throw line in the opening minutes. To Frank’s point of putting defense first and letting things flow from there: Both Monroe and Drummond recorded steals at one end and went the other way for second-half dunks.
Drummond said veterans Maxiell, Tayshaun Prince and Corey Maggette picked him up at halftime.
“They boosted my confidence back up and just told me I got it in the next half,” he said after he matched Maxiell’s double-double with 11 and 11. “I came out and played with better energy and effort the next half. They saw the way I came in and my body language wasn’t right. They said, ‘Just stay focused and play hard and we’re going to win this basketball game.’ ”
“The second half, he brought great intensity and energy and did a great job rebounding the ball and being a presence around the rim,” Frank said. “He impacts the game so much when he’s playing with our guards just because he’s such a threat. When you’re drawing fouls on your rolls, you know the scouting report is out. That’s why Rodney (Stuckey) gets those corner threes or some open closeout situations – because that roll was sucking in weak-side defenders.”
Stuckey finished with 14, Will Bynum 15 and six assists and Brandon Knight 18 points, five assists and four rebounds while continuing to instigate perimeter pressure, harassing Jameer Nelson into a 6 of 18 night that left him visibly frustrated in the second half.
From Chicago, the Pistons head to Florida where they’ll first play Miami before a rematch with Orlando on Sunday. They go with some wind in their sails after consecutive 15-point wins over two teams, Boston and Orlando, fighting with them among a handful of teams for the final few East playoff berths.
“It’s a great feeling to take care of home,” Maxiell said. “We got two wins. Now we go to Chicago and Miami and back to Orlando and see what we can do.”