High Alert

Struggling Pistons defense up for series of severe tests, starting with NY

The Pistons' game against the visiting Knicks on Wednesday will likely serve as a yardstick of their defensive capabilities.
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images
If the Pistons needed any motivation beyond erasing the sting of the season’s worst defeat – Sunday’s 39-point loss at San Antonio – to rivet attention for their next game, the New York Knicks ought to do it.

Struggling defensively over the past month, no opponent figures to perk up their ears quite like the Knicks, who have averaged 107.3 points against the Pistons in three easy wins.

The most competitive of the three – which have finished with margins of 21, 15 and 14 points – was the January game in London, when the Pistons recovered from an early 18-4 hole to climb within four points late in the third quarter. The other two games were both at Madison Square Garden. Their average deficit after one quarter against the Knicks has been 12.3 points and the average halftime margin has been 18.7 points.

“No. 1, we have to take care of the basketball,” assistant coach Brian Hill, running the team Tuesday while Lawrence Frank attended to a personal matter, said after practice. “Any time we get a high-turnover game with this team, they convert all of those turnovers into easy scores. No. 2, offensively their switching has given us some problems where we haven’t been able to really get good flow and get the shots that we want and, again, that leads to transition for them, which is their strength.”

Carmelo Anthony has been a particularly thorny matchup for the Pistons, primarily playing power forward and forcing the Pistons to choose between guarding him with Jason Maxiell or their small forward – Tayshaun Prince in the first two meetings, Kyle Singler in the February game at New York that also marked Jose Calderon’s Pistons debut.

Anthony is questionable for Wednesday’s game after leaving Monday’s win at Cleveland with knee pain.

“When I saw him walk off the floor the other night, I got the impression he would probably be ready to play with a day’s rest,” Hill said. “When we prepare, we prepare as if he’s going to be there and we worked on his pick and rolls today and his early postups. We’ll adjust tomorrow if we hear something different, but obviously with him on the floor they’re a different team.”

The Pistons have had spotty recent defensive showings, especially since the All-Star break, and Hill said the transition defense at San Antonio likely was the worst it’s been in the season’s first 62 games. That was on the short list of priorities for Tuesday’s practice, which was heavy on full-court, five-on-five drills.

While the focus of the post-Calderon trade analysis has been on the offensive end, the reality is the Pistons are grappling every bit as much with the trade’s fallout on the defensive side. And it goes far beyond merely getting Calderon caught up on Pistons defensive principles.

Look what else spilled over from the trade: Brandon Knight went from guarding primary ballhandlers to chasing shooting guards sideline to sideline around screens; Kyle Singler, though making a less severe adjustment, went from guarding shooting guards against whom he often had a size advantage/quickness disadvantage to his more natural small forward spot; Tayshaun Prince, bellwether of the defense for years, was removed from the equation; Andre Drummond’s absence coincided with Calderon’s arrival, combining an already remade second unit to radically alter that group’s defensive makeup.

“I don’t think there’s any question that’s a factor,” Hill said. “Especially when you lose a guy like Andre. That’s really where he made his mark with us up to this point is as a defensive guy, a guy who gives us rim protection. He can block a shot, change a shot, and he’s got really quick feet. He can make coverages a lot of our other guys can’t make, quite honestly. The trade and adding Jose to the mix and taking Tayshaun out, that affects your defense a little bit.

“But we can’t use those as excuses. We don’t have Andre. We have the guys that we have and we just have to continue to work hard at the defensive end to try to play as good an individual and team defense as we can.”

The next five games would test the sturdiest of defenses. After the Knicks, Dirk Nowitzki and Dallas visit The Palace on Friday night, then the Pistons head out on a weeklong trip that starts with games against the Clippers, Jazz and Warriors – all sitting safely in the Western Conference playoff field.