Downed by Dallas

Pistons rally from 15 down to lead late, but Mavs pull out 3-point win

TEAM COLORS

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

White Hot – Two little-used players, Charlie Villaneuva and Khris Middleton, led a fourth-quarter surge after a flurry of Dallas 3-pointers to open the quarter saw the Mavs take a five-point lead to 15. The Pistons went on a 24-8 run to take a 97-96 lead on a Middleton 3-pointer, but Dallas hung on for a 100-97 win, the Pistons’ fourth straight loss. Middleton and Villanueva combined for 22 fourth-quarter points. Villanueva’s tip with six seconds left brought the Pistons within a point, then after two Dallas free throws with 3.8 seconds left gave the Mavs a 3-point lead, Villanueva’s try at a tying triple at the buzzer missed from the corner. Brandon Knight scored 21 to lead the Pistons. O.J. Mayo had 22 to lead seven Mavs in double figures.

BLUE COLLAR – Jason Maxiell and Jonas Jerebko’s contributions aren’t often reflected in the box score, but when they’re right their hustle and subtle contributions make a huge difference for the Pistons. With Brian Hill shrinking his frontcourt rotation to three – Greg Monroe, Maxiell and Jerebko – they got plenty of chances to make an impact in Friday’s game. Maxiell put up 12 points an 13 rebounds and spent much of his night guarding Dirk Nowitzki, who scored just 12 points. Jerebko shot just 2 of 9, but contributed with five boards and two assists and made a number of hustle plays.

RED FLAG – Rodney Stuckey has now gone three straight games without a basket and it cost him his spot in the rotation in Friday’s second half. Stuckey took just one shot, had zero rebounds and one assist in 13 first-half minutes against Dallas after missing all 10 of his shots spread over 35 minutes in losses to San Antonio and New York. Khris Middleton took Stuckey’s second-half minutes and produced a career-high 14 points, scoring 10 in the fourth quarter.

Before Brian Hill pulled a lineup out of the hat and Friday night turned sideways, it looked like you could cross out the names of Raymond Felton, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert and substitute Mike James, O.J. Mayo and Vince Carter. It looked, in other words, as if the story of Friday’s loss to Dallas was going to basically steal its plot line from Wednesday’s loss to New York: a flurry of 3-pointers doing in the Pistons once again.

The Pistons were hanging around, as they’d done with the Knicks, when three triples on three possessions turned a tie into a runaway. Against the Mavs, a five-point hole after three quarters became a 15-point canyon in the course of just 137 seconds as ex-Piston Mike James and ex-superstar Vince Carter each drained a pair of triples over the span of six Dallas possessions.

A 24-8 run later, the Pistons most improbably led 97-96, the comeback spurred by two players who didn’t play in the loss to New York. Rookie Khris Middleton scored a career-high 14 points, 10 of them in the fourth quarter, and Charlie Villaneuva added 12, all in the final period after not entering the game until very late in the third quarter.

Middleton got his shot when Hill saw little life in Rodney Stuckey, who inexplicably played his third straight game without a basket. Villanueva’s opening came when Hill decided the threat of his 3-point shooting was needed to spread the floor after going with a three-man frontcourt rotation in the first half.

“I thought offensively the best thing for us to run were going to be spread pick-and-roll plays where we just spread the floor and run a high pick and roll at the top,” Hill said. “I wanted to see how they were going to guard Charlie in that situation because of his threat as a 3-point shooter as opposed to Jonas (Jerebko). Not only did Charlie get a couple of threes, but it opened up some good looks for other people. We just rolled him out there to see what we could get.”

The Pistons knocked down four of their nine triples in the fourth quarter, two each from Villanueva and Middleton, whose three with 2:29 to play put the Pistons ahead 97-96. Dallas immediately regained the lead and survived two Villanueva triple attempts in the last nine seconds, including a game-tying try at the buzzer, both of them clean looks, in a 102-99 final.

“I have confidence in myself, my teammates have confidence in me,” Middleton said. “I just go out there and play my game. The fourth quarter, that’s when everybody wants to play. That’s winning time.”

Hill, coaching his second straight game while Lawrence Frank is home in New Jersey attending to his wife Susan’s illness, didn’t go back to Stuckey after he took just one shot in 13 first-half minutes, recording one assist and no rebounds.

“I just felt we needed energy and I didn’t think we were getting energy from everybody in the first half,” he said. “Khris is a good offensive player. He can make shots and he can also attack off the dribble. It was just a choice to give him a shot at it.” As for Stuckey, “that’s a hard one for me to figure out because he’s trying to attack the basket. He makes an effort at the defensive end. I think he, like a lot of guys, is going through a little spell right now where you just have to play yourself out of it.”

Hill said he “rolled the dice” with a lineup he saw providing energy – and also one that hadn’t spent much, if any, time together all season. The fourth-quarter unit down the stretch consisted of Brandon Knight (21 points), Jose Calderon (seven points, seven assists including six after halftime, six rebounds, zero turnovers) and Jason Maxiell (12 points, 13 rebounds) in addition to Villanueva and Middleton.

Greg Monroe finished with another double-double, 14 points and 10 rebounds. The loss stung after their comeback put it at their fingertips, but he saw something in the fight that unit showed that he hopes will serve the Pistons well on a four-game Western Conference road trip they’ll begin over the weekend.

“We never want to quit – we never will quit,” he said. “But you’ve got to win these games. We have to just get ready to go win some games on the road. That’s what this league is about. We just have to see what we did, try to correct it and switch our focus to the Clippers now.”

Monroe spent the bulk of the fourth quarter on the bench, actively cheering as Villanueva and Middleton led the charge.

“Guys got hot,” he said. “Khris hit some big shots. Charlie got hot. Brandon was playing well the whole game. Whenever you’re getting stops and making shots, you’re going to make a run.”

Monroe has seen evidence of Middleton’s varied and crafty scoring ability in practices and was happy to see it translate to a game.

“He’s a knockdown shooter, a cerebral player,” Monroe said of the Texas A&M rookie taken with the 39th pick in last June’s draft. “He just plays within himself. He has a good feel for the game. He knows when to attack and when to move the ball. It’s nothing that’s surprising. He’s getting a chance and he’s taking advantage of it.”

Over the season’s final 18 games, the front office and coaches will be looking closely at the back end of their bench to help shape their decision-making process for how to attack a critical off-season. Middleton gave them something to chew on with a big fourth quarter with an NBA game on the line. He helped put the Pistons in a position to win. It’s been closing out those games all season that’s bedeviled them, the growing pains common to young teams searching to establish credibility.